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Strategies for engaging with and advocating for colleagues who are struggling with mental illness

World Mental Health Day, 10 October, is an annual event to promote awareness of mental health issues, and reduce stigma directed towards people with mental illness. In NSW the day also falls within Mental Health Month.

Mental Health Day and Mental Health Month offer an opportunity to support your colleagues who have mental health issues. By engaging with them, and enhancing awareness of the difficulties they face, you can become a mental health ally. That means helping people who struggle with mental illness to feel valued and needed, and at the same time making your workplace safer and more productive.

Listen first

Allyship starts with listening.

Really listening to another person can take practice. If someone is experiencing distress, communication might be difficult; taking the time to listen and understand makes space for a range of experiences, and removes pressure from the conversation.

Practise active listening to understand what the other person is experiencing. That includes being attentive to non-verbal communication, and asking questions to clarify if you need to. It can help to repeat things back to the distressed person to make sure you understand what they’re saying, especially if communicating is difficult for them.

It’s important to listen without judgement, and not jump in with your own ideas about how to solve the problem. Take time to validate the person’s concerns and respect their boundaries. Check in: ask things like, “is this conversation still ok for you?” Check whether the person is feeling triggered, activated, or dissociated. It might feel awkward to ask these sorts of things, but it’s an excellent way to offer support.

You can also ask if there’s anything you can do to make the situation or conversation more accessible or comfortable. You can ask about specific things, such as, “would this conversation be more comfortable if we were side by side, rather than talking face to face?”

Show your support by validating what the other person is experiencing. Be non-judgemental, listening without criticism if someone is experiencing distress or talking about experiences that differ from your own.

Give the other person a lot of time to answer your questions about how they are feeling. Allow them to write or text if they prefer.

You can provide a sense of safety for the person experiencing mental illness by being gentle and humane in your interactions, and normalising talk about feelings. Though not experiencing distress yourself, you can make it safe for people to talk about their feelings by talking about your own. You can do simple things, like letting people know that you’ve been feeling down or tired or stressed.

The more everyone communicates about their feelings, the safer it is for people to disclose when those feelings become overwhelming.

Speaking comes next

To demonstrate that you’re a mental health ally, you can speak up: you can boost the voice of someone talking about their experience, or speak up if the person experiencing mental health issues isn’t able to self-advocate (especially if they’re experiencing distress).

Speaking up can be exhausting and unsafe for people with lived experience of mental illness, but when an ally actively supports them, the stress is reduced.

There is also a burden to educate others placed on people with lived experience. By speaking up as an ally you are relieving some of that burden.

You can show that you’re an ally by avoiding using stigmatising language. This includes not using words like “crazy” to describe people or situations, as well as not using mental illness terminology to vilify a person. We often see people in distress referred to by stigmatising medicalised terms such as “psychotic,” “schizo”, or “manic”. Avoiding this, and speaking up when inappropriate language is being used, is a great way of demonstrating your support for people struggling with mental illness.

Show that you’re an ally by avoiding using stigmatising language

Note that people with diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder won’t engage in those behaviours that are stereotypically labelled with these terms. Separating behaviours from diagnoses is important for challenging mental health stigma and prejudice. To do so, try to be aware of the words you use that are based in a diagnosis or symptom, and find different words to describe extreme behaviour. For example, calling someone who is very tidy “OCD” can make the impact of OCD seem unimportant – and this negates the extreme difficulty experienced by individuals who actually have the disorder.

Making safe spaces and events

Making a safe, welcoming space is important for ensuring people with lived experiences of mental ill health can engage and feel comfortable. Consider things like room layout – is there a space where people can be alone whilst still part of a group?

Other factors include room temperature, lighting, and background noise. Visibly display signage that includes cultural considerations, marginalised groups and people with lived experience of mental illness.

Before an event or activity, check in with people to let them know what’s going to happen, and give them the opportunity to ask any questions they might have. Offering details about what to expect upon arrival can help alleviate anxiety. You can also ask if there are any specific ways you can make the activity more accessible for individuals. This can include anything from offering transport to making quiet spaces available. Offering these things shows that you’ve considered a range of experiences.

During workshops, presentations, or other activities, include an Acknowledgement of Country, appropriate trigger/content warnings, and introductions that include personal pronouns. Make sure there are a range of options for engagement, such as a combination of group and individual work. Also make sure people are encouraged to take time out if and when they need it.

Being inclusive

Show you support mental wellbeing by actively including and prioritising marginalised voices. People from marginalised communities and experiences are often left out of conversations and decisions which affect them, which can contribute to these groups being at higher risk of distress and mental ill-health.

People from marginalised communities and experiences are often left out of conversations and decisions which affect them, which can contribute to these groups being at higher risk of distress and mental ill-health.

Genuine inclusion means engaging people from these groups at all stages of a project or activity and valuing the expertise they bring through their experiences. Meaningful inclusion, through strategies such as co-production and co-design, promotes a sense of wellbeing in participants and reduces the incidence of mental ill health.

Dispelling myths and stigma

There are many myths, misunderstandings and assumptions around mental health issues. These can all lead to stigma: the belief that mental ill-health is something to be ashamed of, and something that should be concealed.

Stigma also connects to prejudice – the judgements we make about others based on their mental health. This can become discrimination when those judgements impact what people with mental health problems are allowed to do and access. As an ally, you can challenge stigma when you notice it, and help create a world free from mental health stigma.

Challenging stigma also means looking at how we interact with the world and making sure what we do is as accessible as possible. Think about some of the common stereotypes about mental illness and find different ways of looking at things. For example, one stereotype about people experiencing mental ill-health is that they are lazy. Instead of this negative stereotype, think about the different things someone might be experiencing that could lead to them feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. Often dealing with the symptoms of mental ill-health takes a lot of internal energy, making it difficult to do everyday tasks. Whilst this may be perceived as laziness from the outside, what we don’t see is that an individual is doing a lot of hard work that is invisible.

Learning about trauma is also key to challenging stigma. For example, you might think that someone’s response to a negative event is over the top, but they might also have trauma in their past that the event reminds them of. Learning more about mental health, especially from people with their own experiences, is key to challenging stigma and prejudice.

Being an ally can help challenge stigma more widely, and help make the world a bit safer for people experiencing mental health difficulties. Throughout the year, not just on Mental Health Day.

See WayAhead Mental Health Association NSW for more resources to support your own mental health and that of your community