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This Thursday we will be observing the Time to Talk Day 2021 which encourages everyone to start conversations about mental health.

As a communications specialist and trainee psychotherapist, I’m particularly interested in understanding the relationship between mental health and the modern working environment. How can we improve our ability to talk about mental and emotional health in the workplace without the associated barriers and stigma?

It’s an important issue. A mental health culture of fear and silence in the workplace is costing UK employers £45 billion per year. Published by Deloitte in January 2020, the analysis finds that poor mental health at work has increased 16% since 2016 (an extra £6 billion per year). One in six employees experience mental health problems at any one time, and stress is the main cause for almost half of working days lost in Britain due to health issues. The report also shows that young people are the most vulnerable to poor mental health in the workplace. I can only presume that these statistics are even higher today considering the additional impacts of Coronavirus.

In the past years, I’ve seen a dramatic change in how we approach the conversation about mental health and how this awareness is becoming significantly important within organisations, however at the individual/employee level it’s still very much a taboo subject.

I had hoped that in these progressive times it would be far easier to have frank and supportive discussions about our well-being, but most of us still feel too vulnerable and ashamed or even scared to raise this topic with a work colleague. It requires an enormous amount of courage and trust as well as cultural change to make this shift in perception possible.

I believe, the problem lays in our attitude to mental health and the language that we use to talk about it. We naturally tend to focus our attention on the negative aspects and far too often, we view people as deficient and lacking what it takes to be healthy and happy.

What if I tell you that we all move up and down on the emotional and mental health spectrum depending on the amount of stress in our life. Our thoughts and feelings are well understood in that the conscious and unconscious often work against each other, creating inner tension, and this internal conflict is exacerbated when the amount of stress increases. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless. If this mental state prolongs, it can compromise our ability to cope and can lead to serious health issues such as anxiety, panic attacks, addiction or depression. In those moments, we shut down our natural ability to think clearly and solve problems. Knowing what to do next can be difficult so we usually stay quiet. The truth is that keeping things to ourselves is unlikely to help improve our situation.

Just Talk

The simple act of talking can be so powerful in bringing clarity and causing a positive change in our emotions. It’s one of our natural, built-in, therapeutic capacities. The benefits of talking, not only help us find a sense of what is going on in our minds, it is also the very first and active step in getting better. Talking to someone who we can trust, gives us a sense of “doing” something and creates a real opportunity to hear our own thoughts. It often brings a sense of control back into our life as we come to the realisation that our feelings and thoughts are not that threatening when we say them out loud to others. There is something special about the process of speaking about issues that feels very different to internalised thinking.

If you’re worried about a friend or colleague, you can reach out to them with a simple “How are things today? Are you OK?”. It may seem so trivial but it could be the first time that someone has asked. There are certain things that are worth having in mind when you decide to do that. Choose a place that will respect the other person’s privacy – the last thing you want is to have this conversation in public. The first priority is to create a safe and non-judgemental environment where they can lead the conversation.

Try not to come up with solutions, give advice nor “fix” the problem. Sometimes we feel the need to relate and have the urge to add our own problems to the discussion. Even if our intentions are good, having someone else take over the conversation can increase the sense of being overwhelmed, diminished and out of control. So, just take it slow and keep in mind that it’s ok to not have all the answers and not know what to do. They also might not be ready to open up completely, but knowing that you are there for them can make a tremendous difference.

The Power of Language

I believe that the language we use to discuss mental health issues is key to starting meaningful conversations. In my experience, the language and narratives we use, shape how we see ourselves and our experiences, so the best way to see the effect of our words is to first look at the relationship with ourselves. How do we view ourselves? What do we say to ourselves about our lives? Are we supportive or are we condescending and belittling? Being kind and compassionate to ourselves allow us to be kind and compassionate to others.

Using clear, respectful and simple language in describing common problems such as depression, low moods, anxiety or stress has the benefit of normalising these issues and reducing stigma, as they are common human life experiences that can affect anyone. Helpful language makes people feel heard, included, and supported.

Labels in particular can hold stigma and we’re finally recognising the importance of calling people what they prefer to call themselves. Labels are just words, but words can harm us profoundly and deeply. They can shape our internal self-talk in a very negative way.

Reframing our language about mental health is the first step in removing this stigma. We can use words to emphasize power and healing. Instead of saying that “we have a problem” we can perhaps say that “we face a challenge”, or we can label someone as “distressed” rather than thinking of them as “mentally ill”. Do they “need support” or “need treatment”?  We can challenge and recalibrate our language. We can choose to speak with others and ourselves as if we were a loving, nurturing parent or best friend.

Mental health affects all areas of our life and should be a priority for everyone. If you would like to see the difference, get started by talking. 

Time to Talk The National Society of Talking Therapies

Written by Dominika Chalder PhD, HDP, DSFH, MNCP(Reg), MNCH(Reg), CNHC(Reg), 
NBMP(Reg), AfSFH(Reg)

Dominika is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and UKCP Trainee Psychotherapist and NSTT Member.

Dominika works in private practice at Positive Mind Clinic