Since 1949, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month: a recognition of mental health and its impact throughout our country. The rate of people seeking mental health services increased significantly since 2020, as such services began to be covered by most health insurance plans. This increase has also been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still undermining people’s mental health. As the New York Times reports, therapists and other mental health practitioners continue to struggle with demand for their services. Online therapy providers have stepped in to address the need, but more than half of adults with a mental illness are not receiving treatment.
Considering the continued impact of the pandemic, financial anxiety, increased media consumption, and a brighter spotlight on social and racial injustice, the current state of American mental health is worrisome. In fact, youth mental health is worsening, and the prevalence of mental illness among adults has been increasing as well, including the rate of suicidal ideation.
With those facts in mind, how do we navigate this month differently than before? How do we move the needle in the opposite direction and support our colleagues, friends, and family in May and beyond? Below you’ll find some actions you can take, plus a curated list of reputable resources for further learning.
Also, join The Diversity Movement on Thursday, May 26 at 12:00 Eastern time for a panel discussion and webinar covering strategies for organizations and individuals to support mental health in the workplace, “Wellness at Work: Building Resilience by Supporting Mental Health.”
We get it… mental health can be a taboo topic, especially in the workplace. When has it ever been socially acceptable to declare “I’m late on my assignments because I had a debilitating panic attack yesterday”? Or even just “I’m feeling really burned out, I’m going to take a mental health day.” The answer is that it never has been, although by today’s standards, those comments are slightly more acceptable and commonplace than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
But mental health doesn’t have to carry a stigma. 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and 1 in 20 adults experience severe mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). That means, if you are a mid-sized enterprise of roughly 500 people, 100 individuals within your organization may be experiencing mental illness, and 25 of them will experience it severely. And that’s just within any given twelve-month period.
The rate of mental illness increases when you look at an individual’s lifespan, with 46 percent of Americans meeting the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and half of those people developing conditions by the age of 14. With that knowledge in mind, it’s certainly curious why we don’t address mental health more often.
Here are some tips to help you better navigate mental health conversations in your workplace.
1) Be open, but don’t pry
Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month is by no means an open invitation to ask your coworkers if they have a specific diagnosis. It is, however, an opportunity to be open to and accepting of conversations around mental health. If a coworker confides in you, make sure to listen. Don’t argue with or even relate to their experience. Be attentive and really listen to understand. This conversation is about them, not you. Even the well meaning “I had that same experience when…” can unintentionally minimize your coworker’s experience. Thank them for trusting you, and ask thoughtful questions about how they are feeling and how you can help, but don’t pry into their medical history or deepest thoughts.
2) Be mindful of your language and behaviors
Even if you hold no conscious biases against people with mental health diagnoses, or have experienced a mental health diagnosis yourself, you may inadvertently use biased language or behavior. Often, unexamined, unconscious biases and deeply-ingrained linguistic habits combine in ways that make us say or do things we don’t actually believe. Take, for example, the casual use of terms such as OCD, ADD, or depressed, as in “My boss didn’t like my presentation. It’s depressing.” Yes, this instance might make you feel sad, disappointed, or worried, but it’s dangerous to compare everyday, temporary feelings and emotions to serious and often chronic diagnoses.
3) Encourage involvement
Can you think of a coworker who might be burned out or dealing with severe work-related stress? Invite them on a walk, ask to grab a cup of coffee, or set up a Zoom check-in. Small breaks and socialization, or even just some time in the sun, are good ways to improve mental health and acuity. Even if your coworker often declines, keep inviting them, so they feel included and can choose for themselves what to take part in.
The same sentiment applies to your strong coworkers — those who seem less or not impacted by the late nights and long hours. Check in on people, give them space to speak up, and be present.
5) Encourage utilization of additional support and resources.
While it’s great that your coworkers feel confident talking to you, it’s also important that they seek the professional support they may need. Remind them of your organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if available, or encourage them to get a referral from their primary care provider.
Supporting Friends and Family
Although many of the tips above apply to friends and family as well, here are some additional, more personal tips you can put to use with the people who are closest to you.
1) Take care of yourself.
To be able to care for those around you, you must first take care of yourself. You can’t support the people you love if you’re run down, sick, or generally unwell. You may want to spend all of your energy doing what you think your loved one needs, but it cannot be at the expense of your own well-being. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, even if your loved one wants to talk late into the night. Don’t feel obligated to answer the phone every single time they call. If it’s disrupting your work or personal life, it’s OK to set boundaries. Make sure your friend or family member knows that you are there for them, but you’re not on-call 24/7. Again — you can’t help them if you can’t help yourself.
2) Encourage media boundaries
People of all ages, but especially teenagers and young adults, have been highly impacted by the proliferation of negative media, including social media. With news available in the palm of your hand, or even in places you least expect, like the company #Slack channel, media are often hard to avoid.
Alarmingly, obsessive use of social media by adolescents and teens can lead to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsive disorder, disruption of proper mental functions, paranoia, and loneliness, according to the ADAA. Between online bullying, FOMO (fear of missing out), and simply the repeated exposure to news stories such as the war in Ukraine, mass shootings, and climate change, it’s no surprise that the media is partially to blame for declining mental health. As such, it’s important to encourage people to set media limits, especially younger adults. And don’t forget to set limits for yourself. This could look like enabling Screen Time controls on your phone or agreeing to only turn on the news 2-3 times a week.
3) Learn as much as you can and show interest in your family member or friend’s treatment plan
Learn about your loved one’s condition, the available treatment plans, and their preferred path forward. Then, hold them accountable. Are they supposed to take medicine every morning? Check in with them in a non-judgemental way or offer to send them daily reminders. Are they supposed to get more exercise? Offer to join them at the gym or on a walk each weekend. Get involved and encourage them to stick to their treatment protocol.
However, just because you’ve read up on their diagnosis and understand their current treatment plan, does not qualify you as a mental health professional. Do not suggest changes to their treatment or suggest an alternative diagnosis without consulting their care provider.
4) Express your support verbally and behaviorally
Spoken and nonverbal communication can reduce stress levels and promote a positive mindset. Try simple phrases such as “This isn’t your fault. Mental illness can impact anyone,” and “We’ll get through this together.” You may also engage in nonverbal actions such as a big hug and smile when you see them or a pat on the back when they seem to be improving. Don’t underestimate the power of consistent and genuine encouragement.
5) Prepare a crisis plan
If you have a child, partner, parent, roommate, or other loved one with a severe mental health condition, you may need to prepare for a crisis. Make sure to have important phone numbers on hand, such as your local crisis intervention team, or your loved one’s PCP or therapist. Discuss this plan with at least one other person, so that you are not alone in case of an emergency.
There are a plethora of other tips and best practices available to support those around you who have mental health conditions. However, we hope this guide has armed you with some top pieces of advice both in the workplace and at home or in your community. Perhaps some of these tips inspired you to ask for help with your own diagnosis, or maybe they simply sparked an open and honest dialogue with your team.
If you are interested in additional mental health resources, please see the list below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for custom training opportunities.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Mental Health by the Numbers
- Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family
- Supporting Recovery
- Maintaining a Healthy Relationship
- Taking Care of Yourself
- How to Help a Friend
- Disclosing to Others
- Tackling Mental Health Stigma
Mental Health America
Center for Workplace Mental Health by the American Psychiatric Association
Kaela Sosa, CDE, is Curriculum and Programming Manager at The Diversity Movement as well as one of its founding members. With a degree in Psychology and Gender Studies, Kaela has fought for the visibility and acknowledgement of issues pertaining to underrepresented groups for nearly a decade. Connect with her on Linkedin.