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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 negative and emotional.  Mine involves the death of a child, which led to my PTSD.  At the start of my talk ("Mentally Healthy Conversations") I invite my audience to play the role of my boss, teacher, friend, colleague or tutor.  And then I hit them with my Story.  The draining emotion of my story conveys the point well - this is not a good way to get support for mental health.  It drains the listener.

The Impact is also both emotional and complex.  My PTSD leads to my hyper-vigilant mind having flashbacks to the death of my son and flashforwards to new potential tragedies. This raises the need for complex explanations about the impact of trauma on the way our brains process bad experiences. 

"Label, Story and Impact don't work for mental health. If we're going to get support, rather than stigma, we need to find a new way of talking about our mental wellbeing."

So how do we turn this around?

As I discovered in my own journey through my mental health challenge, better outcomes are achieved by using a different framework to discuss mental health.  One that puts the listener into a place where they can feel competent and able to help.  And I use this framework in my coaching work with people who are looking to manage their mental health challenges.  This framework produces better outcomes.

Here are my tips for getting a better outcome.

Tip #1 - Talk about what a challenging day looks like

First, tell them what sort of things happen to you that make your day makes your day more difficult. Your boss, teacher, tutor, friend or colleague can't help cure your illness; but they can help you avoid the things that typically happen on a difficult day for you. The better the listener's understanding of the situations that you find challenging, the more they can see how to help you avoid them. This almost immediately moves the conversation into positive, solution-focused, territory.

When I need support, I don't have to tell the story of my son's death. Or of the impact of this on me in the form of traumatic flashbacks to his death, and flashforwards to other tragedies.  Instead I talk about what a difficult day looks like for me.  

In a nutshell,my condition is worse:

  • when I have lots of things going on around me at the same time with interruptions, diversions and chaos - this makes my hyper-vigilant post traumatic brain constantly focus on the risk of something tragic happening

  • when I have to stay away from home - which makes my hyper-vigilant brain anticipate a tragic outcome for my family

  • when things are unclear or uncertain - which makes my hyper-vigilant brain anticipate a tragic outcome for me.

Tip #2 - Discuss what a good day looks like

The opposite of Tip #1 is to then talk about what a good day looks like. What sort of situations help you feel more resilient and better able to manage your wellbeing? You might think of these as you 'resilient resources'.

Again, this focus on your daily environment empowers the person you are talking to, because they can influence your day and help you have the things that lead to you having a better day.

For me I am far better able to manage my condition when I have the following:

  • Freedom to plan my own day: so I can do things calmly, one thing at a time, without unnecessary interruptions, diversions or chaos. This calms my hyper-vigilant mind

  • The ability commute to work (which for me is a significant and expensive commute) and not stay away from home as much as possible.

  • To have colleagues who are honest and straight-talking with me as much as possible, so there are no-surprises.

Through Evenhood I've worked with individuals who have a range of easy-to-provide resilient resources. Anything from how instructions are given, how feedback is delivered, when they take breaks, what sort of lighting they sit under, the noise of their working environment, when they eat, what the balance is like between desk-based work and meeting-focused work, the degree of autonomy they are given and so on. Lots of small adjustments that can make the world of difference to wellbeing.

Tip #3 - Discuss your Talents & Abilities

Much more often than not this next point is completely forgotten or overlooked;  but the truth of the matter is that people with mental wellness challenges often have certain enhanced talents and abilities.  We often see:

  • increased interpersonal empathy - which is useful for people management and leadership

  • the ability to identify and mitigate risk (one of mine - a great by-product of PTSD!) - which is useful for risk management, health & safety, business continuity and compliance

  • increased creativity - which is useful for design and the arts

  • tenacity and the ability to identify flaws - which is useful for programming, software development, audit and compliance

  • increased logical thinking - which is useful for programme or project management and process design.

You'll find that discussing Triggers, Resilient Resources and Talents & Abilities is a more effective way of helping the person you are talking to find ways of supporting you.

All the best on your journey and if I can help your situation in any way please drop me a line on or explore more on

I wish you well — Jonathan Phelan

About Jonathan Phelan

Jonathan is the author of “The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation” which tells the story of how Jonathan learned to manage the challenge of a mental health condition following a child bereavement. The book helps the reader discover how to have mentally healthy conversations, which are more likely to result in support, rather than stigma. It also promotes the benefits of workplaces, universities and schools nurturing a culture in which it is normal for people to talk about their mental health and to offer mutual support for wellbeing and resilience.

Jonathan has held a senior leadership position in a large financial services organisation since 2004, with a long-term career in law, law enforcement and consumer protection. When he went through the trauma of a child bereavement he gained an insight into the obstacles people face when they have mental wellbeing challenges. More importantly he learned how to overcome those obstacles by improving the way we talk about our wellbeing and resilience.

Through his talks, workshops and book Jonathan shares his personal story. Using the drama of how mental health has been portrayed in film, and his own particular take on how our brains process information, Jonathan guides the listener to discover more effective ways to talk about mental wellbeing. Jonathan also promotes the concept of mutual support for wellbeing; based on the belief that we should all aim to make it normal for people to talk about their mental wellbeing, just as we are already willing to talk about physical wellbeing.

The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation is available on Amazon or from the Evenhood website.


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