Do You Talk About Mental Health?

“Dude, she’s totally crazy,” I told my friend Eric. It wasn’t a kind thing to say and I wasn’t being mindful of my cognitive biases. I also wasn’t being mindful of Eric’s feelings.

I was telling him about a woman who had recently done something irrational and hurtful to another friend of ours. But the word “crazy” struck a nerve with Eric, who also has dealt with mental health illnesses.

He winced and said, “Don’t say that.”

I apologized immediately and acknowledged that “crazy” wasn’t a sensitive or productive way to talk about mental health. Doing so contributed to the stigmas surrounding these illnesses, which is something I would never want to do. My frustration was with this woman’s actions, not her mental illnesses — I should have stuck to the facts.

Eric smiled and let me off the hook, and not just because I apologized. He knows how I really feel about mental health issues — and more importantly, how I feel about him — because we’ve been friends since middle school. Over the years we’ve spoken openly about our feelings, his mental illness, and my own stress and emotional struggles. We listen to each other, check in on each other, and trust that we can share without being criticized or minimized. Sometimes one of us says something insensitive (we are, after all, human), but we’re comfortable enough in our friendship to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to point out the other’s lapse in judgment or compassion, and then to forgive.

Of course, it’s easy to have an honest, open discussion about mental health with a close friend you’ve known for 20 years. But just imagine what it would be like if we felt safe and comfortable enough to have similar conversations with all of the people in our lives. What difference would it make in our relationships, our interactions with others, and the mental health of everyone around us?

From Public Awareness to Personal Connections

There’s been a lot of discussion about mental health stigma in recent years, and with good reason. Despite significant progress, there are still social stigmas that cause many people to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their mental illnesses.

These stigmas aren’t rooted in unkindness; they’re rooted in ignorance. So, it’s great that health care organizations, mental health professionals, journalists, and even some filmmakers are attempting to better educate the public and change stereotypes. They’ve taken what was once a personal matter and turned it into a public discussion about compassion, empathy, and emotional wellness.

However, perhaps the next best step is to make the conversation interpersonal.

Maybe we can advance our ability to address mental health issues by simply talking to each other — checking in with people, asking how they feel, and talking about how we feel. Maybe we’ll learn that we’re all thinking similar things and just not saying them for fear of seeming weak, irrational, or damaged. Perhaps we’d have a little more empathy for each other if we took the time to stop and actually empathize, which really shouldn’t be that hard considering we all have our own mental health challenges.

Why Everyone Should Talk About Mental Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of all U.S. adults have a mental illness and 50 percent will develop one during their lifetime. Almost everyone experiences depression and anxiety at some point, and none of us are immune to stress.

Talking about it helps. It feels good to feel supported and to know that you’re not alone in your struggles. After all, human beings are hardwired to communicate and connect.

Think about a toddler who is just learning how to talk. The toddler gets the concept of communication and wants to be understood, but they don’t always have the words to express this so they get frustrated and cry or act out. As adults, we still have that desire to be understood and we have the language skills to express ourselves, but we don’t always have the courage.

Kindness helps to give us that courage, human connections help to alleviate stress, and being able to talk about mental health helps us feel better.

It also chips away at the remaining stigma surrounding mental illnesses so that people seek medical attention when they need it and know that they have a support system in place to help, even if members of that support system do sometimes use insensitive words like “crazy.”