October 10th is World Mental Health Day – a day to recognize and bring awareness to mental health and encourage positive change in how the world views and treats mental health. This year's theme set by the World Foundation for Mental Health is "Mental Health is a Human Right". The World Health Organization breaks down this theme as, "Everyone, whoever and wherever they are, has a right to the highest attainable standard of mental health. This includes the right to be protected from mental health risks, the right to available, accessible, acceptable, and good quality care, and the right to liberty, independence, and inclusion in the community."
This year's theme feels especially relevant to Restoring Hope's mission, as well as the impact that our host homes make in the lives of individuals in care. Not only do our host homes and their consumers' teams advocate for their individuals' rights to care, but they are also always there for our clients, helping them discuss their mental health. Talking about mental health is one of the most important ways to break the stigma around mental health, but also to take another step to seek care, finding coping strategies, and ultimately, finding acceptance in a community.
Mental health advocacy and awareness is part of being a host home caregiver, as well as just someone who wants to help make the world a more inclusive place for everyone! Not only is it important to advocate for others, but it is also important to advocate for your own mental health. It is very common for those in the fields of direct care, social work, or medical fields to experience burnout or compassion fatigue. The first step is reaching out to someone and talking about it, but this can be daunting for some – so how do you take that first leap?
The First Step: Talking About your Mental Health
Hannah Newton, MS Psychology, is a Program Manager with Restoring Hope, as well as a School-Based Support Specialist with Burrell Health. She agrees, "There is a huge stigma around mental health still, but the more we talk about it, the less of a stigma there is and the more progress we can make." Hannah helped to provide some tips and advice for starting those conversations, as well as what to do if you are the person who is on the other end of that conversation. So, if you are thinking about reaching out to talk about your mental health, these are some great places to start!
Reach out with a Text or Phone Call
If a face-to-face conversation seems too intimidating, try texting or a phone call! Hannah says this is always a great place to start when you aren't sure how to begin the conversation. Pick someone close to you who you are comfortable talking to, and if you aren't sure how to start the conversation, try to write out your thoughts first, then come back to starting that conversation. Hannah does lightly caution, though, that although reaching out to loved ones is a great way to open up about your mental health, it is important to remember that these people aren't therapists or mental health professionals, so you can't rely on them for mental health care to replace actual therapy or counseling. However, connecting with a friend or family member to start the conversation is a big first step in seeking support.
Bring Some Help
Mental Health America suggests looking online for more information about how you are feeling and how to express that to someone and taking notes or printing off the info and bringing it with you.
Write it Out
Sometimes, it's hard to organize our thoughts into words, especially when we are stressed or overwhelmed. So, try opening up a blank Word document on your laptop or grab a notebook and start freewriting. You don't have to worry about grammar or punctuation or anything like that – just write and then read it back to see if you can understand how to express yourself a little bit better.
Expect Some Questions
It can be draining to talk about your mental health, but it can also be draining to answer questions about it, so make sure you are prepared for a follow-up conversation with possibly very direct questions. You don't have to answer all of them, but try to answer most and be honest with your answers – the other person is asking them to understand you better and help you.
Awkward…And That's Okay!
It might be a little awkward for you both at times to discuss this – but that's okay! For some people, this is something they don't like to or aren't used to talking about, so be prepared for some awkwardness.
So, what about when someone comes to you to talk about their mental health? This can also be a little scary as you may not know what to say or how to react. But Hannah says the most important thing to do is to listen, and more than listen, try practicing active listening. The Berkely Well-Being Institute defines active listening as "the process of listening to understand." If you have ever talked to someone and felt like they just weren't really listening to you or were distracted, this probably made you feel frustrated and maybe even just want to shut down – obviously, this is not what you want to do to someone who has come to you to talk about their mental health. Active listening involves you as the listener being a part of the conversation and letting the person talking know that their message is being understood and not just heard.
Sounds obvious, but don't interrupt and let the other person finish their sentence or wait for the right moment to speak. We tend to try to relate to others in conversation by sharing our personal experiences or stories, but in this situation, it is good to do so carefully. Hannah says, "Relating to someone with similar experiences can be helpful, but keeping in mind no two experiences are the same, and make sure to not overshadow their concerns or conversations with our own."
Hannah says that it helps to have follow-up questions that repeat something the person said back to them. For example, "You mentioned that you feel this way when Laura ignores you – tell me more about that". This lets the other person know that you are engaged in the conversation with them, as well as helping you both to explore different paths of the conversation.
This is also called Motivational Interviewing, which is something therapists often use, and it means asking more questions that do not require a "yes" or "no" answer. This lets the other person have space to talk more about the topic and how they feel. For example, "Why does this new relationship make you feel so anxious?" Instead of, "Does this new relationship make you feel anxious?"
Check Judgment at the Door
Go into this conversation without judgment and try to leave your personal beliefs or biases behind. This isn't always easy, but it is something you can practice that will make you a better listener and help the other person feel more comfortable.
Hannah said the most important thing to do is to be sure to validate the other person or let them know that their feelings are important and being taken seriously. Some ways to validate the other person's feelings are to say, "I see that you feel very upset/stressed/scared/etc." "This must be hard for you," or "I'm sorry that happened to you." It is also important to think about your facial expressions and eye contact – don't look at something else while they are talking or fidget with anything in your hands (put that phone away!) – stay free from distractions.
Keep in mind that you don't need to have an answer – just listen and follow up! People aren't usually looking for you to solve their problems; they just need to be heard. So don't stress about finding a solution; just be there for them the same way that you would want someone to be there for you.
While working on opening up about your mental health as well as practicing active listening are great ways to help yourself and others, Hannah emphasizes that these tips are in no way replacements for therapy or psychiatric care. They are just a first step or a way to continue to support someone on their mental health journey.