How to have a Mentally Healthy Conversation

When we're ill, we need support. With physical health, we normally get what we need. But not for mental health. Here's how to have a mentally healthy conversation and get support, rather than stigma, for your mental wellbeing.

Person at the bottom of a hill with a fork in the road, one path leading to support, and the other to stigma.

Working or studying while ill is a real challenge.

Whether you've got the aches & pains associated with a cold or the 'flu, the pain of a torn ligament or the challenge of a mental health condition; what you need when ill is to be able to tell someone about your illness and get the support you need.

With physical illness, this can usually be done. We talk about what is wrong with us, and we usually get the support we need.

For those who have  a mental health challenge, the outcome is far less positive. With mental health:

  • over 50% of employees think their employer is poor at supporting mental health

  • more students are dropping out of university in their first year, due to mental health, than ever before

  • the stigma is so severe and support so poor that around 60% of employees hide their mental health condition. And the same is true at many of our schools and universities

  • yet around a third of us will have a mental health challenge at work, or in school or university at some point

  • more working days are lost to mental health than anything else. 

  • It's not just bad for the individual either - employers, teachers and tutors see lost productivity, absence, more grievance, more complaints and more litigation, and less engaged staff or students.

This is wrong on every level.  And for everyone.  And we need to put it right.

Let's first look at why it goes wrong, then we can see what we can do about it.

There are two sides to a conversation about mental health - the person with the mental health challenge, and the person they need support from - a boss, teacher, university tutor, friend or colleague. Let's have a look at this from the perspective of the person listening.

Picture of two confused bosses

Think about a conversation about physical health. When we are ill we generally talk about:

#1 - Label: what's wrong with us ("I have . . . the flu, a broken leg, arthritis, cancer")

#2 - Story: how we got or found the illness ("I caught it from...", "I fell down a step", "My joints have got increasingly inflamed", "I found a lump")

#3 - Impact: how it affects us ("I'm so weak I can't even get up", "I can't walk", "It's painful to use my hands", "I need an operation").

Image of one person talking to another and a flowchart of Label, Story and Impact

Naturally we use the same framework for mental health.  Label. Story. Impact.

But. Let's look at this from the perspective of the listener.

Labels are numerous and complex - autism, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bereavement, chronic stress, adhd, dyslexia, depression, dyspraxia, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and many more conditions.  Each having a range of severity; with 'high-functioning' on the one hand (where the sufferer is able to function effectively, despite the condition) to totally debilitating or even needing constant care on the other.

The Story associated with the condition is often overwhelmingly negati