August 17, 2016

If somebody feels comfortable enough to open up to you about what they are experiencing, they have a lot of trust for you. Be there for them.

Young campaigner Sophie is challenging attitudes towards mental health and promoting student well-being in her school. Read her top tips on how to create a caring and understanding environment for people affected by mental health problems.

For many people, the words ‘mental health’ connote fear, danger and discomfort. But why is it that simply exchanging the word ‘physical’ for ‘mental’ evokes such an overwhelmingly different and often heartless response? And how can we start meaningful conversations that can turn-around people’s conceptions of what suffering from a mental illness is like? I believe that there are three steps we can all follow in the journey towards building a society unashamed and honest about their mental wellbeing: educate, challenge and empathise.

1) Educate

It’s reported that 90% of people suffering from a mental illness experience discrimination as a result. This discrimination can be experienced in the work place, in social circles or in relationships. However, I believe that one key to decreasing discrimination is educating yourself about the facts, and in turn banishing the myths surrounding mental health.

The first place to start is in recognising that ‘mental health’ is no different from ‘physical health’ – everybody has mental health, just as everybody has physical health. Both can malfunction occasionally, and both can be treated – there is no shame in being mentally, or physically ill. Therefore, people experiencing mental illness should be treated no differently in the workplace, in a friendship circle or in a relationship than somebody suffering from a physical ailment – you wouldn’t expect somebody with a broken leg to ‘man up’ or ‘just get on with it’ if their condition left them incapable of working, for example, so why is this often the case for somebody experiencing mental health problems?

2) Challenge

In partnership with educating yourself about the reality of mental illness, challenging others’ misconceptions or misunderstandings is also instrumental in changing attitudes. Unfortunately, the media has created and continues to perpetuate the stereotype of suffering from a mental illness as anything from crazy and dangerous to romantic and beautiful. This is not the truth. Experiencing a mental illness can be isolating, debilitating and pose daily obstacles. On the other hand, however, it is important to understand that people experiencing mental health problems are normal people with jobs and families – they are not ‘weird’ or ‘strange’. If 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, it cannot be abnormal or uncommon, meaning that sufferers are not abnormal either.

It is crucial to challenge unhelpful language or deceptive images that are created surrounding mental illness so that people experiencing mental health problems do not feel isolated or discriminated against.

3) Empathise

The final step towards reducing stigma requires the ability to empathise with those suffering from mental illness, both in your treatment of and conversations with them. I believe the following tips are helpful in aiding conversations with somebody that may be suffering from a mental health problem:

Look beyond the label

People should not be defined by a label, and somebody suffering from a mental health problem may view their illness as their defining feature. Therefore, it’s extremely important to look beyond the illness and encourage the person to do the same.

Listen

From personal experience, it can be really difficult to start a conversation about mental health if you are experiencing difficulties and require support. It was so helpful to me to have a friend that I could trust, who wasn’t judgemental but was also realistic and honest in telling me that I needed to seek help urgently. If somebody feels comfortable enough to approach you and wants to open up to you about what they are experiencing, they have a lot of trust for you. Be there for them, listen to them and support them, but also remember to look after yourself as well.

Be normal

Similarly to the first tip, somebody suffering from a mental health problem will not want to talk about it all the time. Whilst engaging in conversations about their problem is important, it is equally valuable to have normal, everyday conversations with them away from their illness.

Ultimately, it may seem there is still a long way to go before reaching an understanding and knowledgeable society, unafraid and unashamed of approaching the words ‘mental health.’ Involving yourself in open and non-judgemental conversations regarding mental health is an absolutely crucial first step towards fighting stigma and ending discrimination.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.