Mistakes We Make When Talking About Mental Health at Work
American philosopher Elbert Hubbart once said, “The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.” If you’ve spoken about mental health in your workplace – whether sharing struggles of your own or offering support to a colleague – you may have found yourself overanalyzing the conversation afterward: Should I have said that? What if they think ‘XYZ’ now? I wish I’d said ‘A’ instead of ‘B’… Our own uncertainty and worries about saying the wrong thing all too often lead us to avoid these important conversations all together. Discussions about mental health can feel a little scary, especially if it’s not a topic you’re accustomed to speaking about openly. Like most things, with time and practice it becomes easier. In the meantime, let’s take a look at a few commonly-used expressions and ideas that might not serve our purpose when we're offering support.
Statements like this can trivialize what a person’s going through. Mental health problems are real medical issues, which makes them very different from an emotional state someone can simply “snap out of”. If it were that easy, the person probably would have done it already, right? When someone opens up about a mental health problem, validate their experience and take it seriously.
“I know exactly how you feel.”
Even if you’ve had (what you believe to be) a similar life experience, never make the assumption that you fully understand exactly what another person is going through. On top of that, this sentence often ends up redirecting the focus of the conversation on to you rather than the person who’s in need of support, as it’s typically followed by details about how/why you relate to what they’re going through and details about that similar experience. Remember that your sole focus should be on the other person’s needs.
“You’re doing [specific medication or treatment]? I’ve heard that’s bad/ineffective.”
The path to recovery looks different for everyone, and it’s critical that decisions about treatment are made by the person who’s struggling and a health care provider they trust. You probably wouldn’t second guess your diabetic co-worker’s insulin regimen, or someone's decision to take antibiotics to treat an infection. Decisions about medical care and complementary therapies are best left to the folks who are qualified to have those discussions, like doctor, counsellors and allied health care professionals.
“You just need to get your mind off it.”
Mental health problems tend to worsen if we don’t deal with the issue by acknowledging it and getting effective support. Avoidance isn’t usually a helpful tactic. Rather than recommending a person try to forget about their symptoms and the way they’re feeling, put your listening hat on and encourage them to share anything they want to get off their chest.
“Everything happens for a reason,” and similar platitudes
Remember that your beliefs are not necessarily shared by the other person, so while your intent might be to provide comfort and hope it might not be helpful. Additionally, these types of proclamations often have a way of shutting down the conversation. Instead, try asking gentle questions to better understand what the person’s feeling.
“It could always be worse.”
This statement is factually accurate in pretty much any situation, no matter how dire… but does is actually make anyone feel better? The fact that life is difficult for others doesn’t make it any easier for the person in front of you, and comparing hardships isn’t a useful strategy. Highlighting the fact that there a people worse off might make your struggling co-worker feel guilty about feeling the way they do, or make them feel embarrassed and regretful of speaking up and asking for help.
If you or someone you know is experiencing challenges related to mental health, don’t be shy. Speak up. Reach out. The worst mistake we can make is being so afraid of saying the wrong thing that the problem goes unaddressed.
Until next time! Thanks for reading.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.