Reducing Stigma and Offering Support

Julie Young, PhD

A colleague recently asked me how I was doing. Instead of the usual “Fine” or “good, how about you?” response I shared the my TMJ was out of place and it has been really painful. Sleep disruption and decreased ability to chew had increased my stress levels. She responded compassionately and empathetically as many of us do when someone shares a physical health struggle, either about themselves or a family member. As I contemplate the enormous burden of healthcare provider mental health struggles, particularly on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day, it strikes me how significant the mental health stigma remains. We have collectively made progress in this arena; the Dr. Lorna Breen Foundation has championed medical boards refraining from asking about mental health diagnoses and the national rollout of 988 as a tool for those with urgent mental health concerns. We have a long way to go until we all respond to someone disclosing “I’m having a really hard time with depression right now” similarly to the person who states “I broke my arm in a car accident”.
I think people mean well and generally feel unsure about the “right” thing to say when someone is talking about their mental health struggles. Our verbal and non-verbal communication are critical to continue the progress in reducing barriers for disclosure of and treatment for mental health difficulties. I’d like to share some ideas to consider.

1. Pay attention to those around you. If someone seems off, check in with them. Get past the “how are you” we all often ask in passing and dig deeper. When someone is limping, everyone asks what’s going on. When someone is unusually snippy or quiet for days or weeks on end, we can create a supportive, safe environment by asking them how we can help support them (even it’s just listening).

2. Know your resources. If someone discloses a mental health concern that seems urgent, your job is to support. You can’t force anyone to see a therapist or even check into and ER. You can always call 988 and trained personnel can help guide you to what is appropriate in your situation.

3. Close the loop. People are afraid of what other’s might think of them if they are open about their mental health. It’s a leading reason why people don’t seek treatment. Following up after a conversation you started shows that person you were listening and actually do care. Even if you reached out to someone who didn’t reveal anything, circling back and saying, I’m still here if you ever want to talk, reinforces the supportive environment that we all need.

4. Mental health for each of us as individuals fluctuates and we all have times of greater need. Mental health professionals play an important role during those times, but often there isn’t enough for demand. Either way, all of us can collectively support each other and create more caring communities. There are opportunities to increase the skills we have; many organizations offer training. I have taken the Mental Health First Aid and can say that it was very useful and well done.

We can all take steps to reduce the suffering in others. When people are as open about their mental health as they are about their physical health, we know that we have created the supportive environment where we can all flourish.