Talking about mental health can be difficult. Not only are mental health issues widely stigmatized, but they can be hugely personal. Everyone who has been personally touched by suicide or mental health issues has the right to decide when, how, and if they want to discuss these topics. While this right is essential, it can be confusing for an ally who wants to help those who are suffering. As a friend, a family member, or even a stranger, it is important to know not only how best to have these conversations, but to know how to create a safe space that is sensitive to the difficulty and importance of discussing mental health issues.
There are misconceptions about creating a safe space. Many believe a safe space is one in which certain ideas are not welcome and only certain people can be validated. In reality, a safe space is simply an environment that encourages and protects discourse that can be either harmonious or controversial. Allowing for a safe space to talk about mental health issues may seem daunting or confusing, but it can be broken down to a few simple steps. Here are six ways to both create a safer environment for conversations about mental health and to aid existing conversations.
Although the following steps are detailed about mental health issues, they can be generalized to other issues. Mental health is not the only topic that benefits from safer environments, but it is a topic that thrives in them.
The first step to opening an environment to discussions about mental health is to educate. Mental health is not a scary topic. Although it is stigmatized, the breadth of available information is astounding. Start generally. Statistics, definitions, and personal accounts are excellent ways to begin research.
The second step is to watch out for problematic or hurtful language that invalidates the significance of mental health issues. Avoid phrases including “s/he is so bipolar,” “s/he looks anorexic,” or “I’m going to kill myself.” These specific phrases and others like them may not seem insulting or harmful, but they have the potential to be both isolating and damaging.
The third step to creating a comfortable environment is to be unafraid to call out ignorance or insensitivity. Call someone out for misinformation or for using language that stigmatizes. It might feel awkward in the moment, but the benefits are long-lasting.
In a more comfortable environment where conversations do take place, it is important to know how to successfully be a part of one.
The fourth step is to set boundaries. Do not make promises of confidentiality that cannot be kept and do not pretend to be a therapist. Remember that there are people who have these kinds of difficult conversations about mental health as a profession. It is not wrong to not know what to say or to feel uncomfortable.
The fifth step is to neither minimize nor maximize. To break down what that means, use the example of a friend saying that depression is leaving him/her feeling as though s/he cannot get out of bed. Do not minimize this and think the friend is not trying hard enough to feel better. Conversely, do not maximize this to mean that s/he cannot get better. Find a balance where the truth lies and be compassionate to that truth.
The sixth step is to empathize, but to empathize appropriately. Do not say “I’ve felt the exact same way” if that is not true. Remember that empathy is a tool to assist a comfortable dialogue, it is not a tool useful in comparison or competition.
The above six tools are hugely helpful in aiding in conversations, but they are not the only ways to create safe environments or aid conversations. As mentioned earlier, each person may want to talk about mental health differently, and each person and conversation requires different tools, but these six steps are a helpful guide in discovering individual intricacies.