Even though mental health issues are on the forefront of our minds today, the topic still carries a stigma for many. Talking about depression can be hard. Trina, a sophomore in college, recently said to me, “We look around us and everyone else seems happy, and we feel we must be the only ones who struggle with mental health problems.”
So, if you’re at home wondering if your own child or the students you teach struggle with mental health issues, here are some practical steps to talk to them about it:
1. Find a safe time to initiate the conversation.
Don’t wait for your young person to start the conversation. It’s likely they don’t have the language to do so. The point is to create or find a healthy, safe space to talk. You’ll want to keep your “antennas” up and look for such a time or to create it intentionally. Perhaps COVID-19 creates a natural introduction to the topic.
2. Avoid trigger words when you bring up the subject.
Steer away from words like crazy or loony or mental. These can be trigger words that have stigmas attached to them. This may sound like I’m lobbying for political correctness, but truth be told, I’m acknowledging my own shortcomings in the past. Certain words shut a student down. Avoid them. Talk about the battle with anxiety. Also, let them know there’s a difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. Begin with the former.
3. Talk about your own struggles with mental or emotional health.
I remember talking to my daughter 13 years ago when she first struggled with depression. I could not say that I’d struggled with it, but I was able to find ways to talk about my own battles with anxiety and fear. It is key that you maintain integrity with your story while identifying with them. Help them see it is a common struggle today and you both are part of that struggle.
4. Separate the person from the problem.
When I hosted a conversation with my own kids about this, I recall searching to find words that didn’t label them or cause them to find their identity in the mental health problem they faced. A wise counselor might say, “You struggle with schizophrenia,” rather than “You’re a schizophrenic.” Don’t define the person by the problem. Their identity should always be above the issues.
5. Recognize amazing contributions of those who’ve wrestled with problems.
Throughout history, some major contributions have been made by people who struggled with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health issues. Search the internet to find some great stories. Autism activist Temple Grandin says, “It if weren’t for a little autism, we wouldn’t have any phones to talk on.” She goes on to say, “Einstein definitely was (autistic); he had no language until age three.” Artists, scientists, and writers throughout history wrestled with such issues but often found those issues enabled them to create and invent.
6. Talk about the positive impact of a good counselor.
Both of my adult children have benefited from a good counselor. In fact, I know their counselors played a role that mom or dad could not play. They brought expertise and objective listening ears to the equation. It’s often best to suggest you’ll help them find a good one and set up just one appointment to begin with. In that first meeting, chemistry and emotional safety are key.
7. Utilize humor when appropriate.
It’s been said for years, “Laughter is the best medicine.” At times, it’s true. Comedian Wax said, “If you surround (your message) with comedy, you have an entree into their psyche. People love novelty, so for me…I’m softening them up. People are liberated by laughing at themselves.”
We are living in strange times. Let’s be mindful of the toll this pandemic may be having on those around us. Most of the time, problems get solved by first bringing them up.