We’ve come a long way when it comes to shattering the dangerous stigmas that can surround mental health. A high-profile example is the trend of professional athletes talking openly about their struggles. Even prizefighters feel more comfortable discussing a topic like anxiety. For the most part, these individuals are treated with the respect they deserve.
Of course, this is not the case across the board. In workplaces all across the nation (the medical field, the military, aviation and law enforcement come to mind) people are discouraged from such honesty. It’s a subtle form of censorship but it holds power. With diligence and resourcefulness, this too can be shifted.
Why is Mental Health Often an Off-Limits Topic?
It’s not always something malicious or insidious. Simply put, many people don’t fully understand or recognize mental health problems. If a co-worker twists an ankle on the basketball court, you can immediately recognize that something is off the next day at work. It might be a limp or even a cast.
If that same co-worker had a panic attack last night, how would you know? Mental health issues and disorders are not found on blood tests, x-rays, or MRIs. They are no less serious than physical problems but they can be far less obvious. Unfortunately, this reality can provoke doubt and derision.
Informing your boss or colleagues that you’re struggling with a mental health concern may be met with suspicion or scorn. You might be deemed weak or lazy. The label “slacker” could get tossed around. Even if they somewhat believe you, it could lead to you being called nuts or crazy. In some fields it can be a career killer. After all, some people still use labels like “nuthouse” or “looney bin” to describe any facility that treats mental health.
In other words, it does not have to be an official (and illegal) policy of your workplace or profession. Peer pressure alone can make you feel unsafe discussing certain topics.
5 Ways to Handle Mental Health Being an Off-Limits Topic in Your Profession
Let’s be clear. Mental health is not always a simple topic to bring up. It can feel triggering to some and taboo to others. So, for starters, be sure to read the room and not make assumptions. This leads up to tip #1.
People will open up at their own pace. In addition, workplace culture is rarely changed overnight. This is not to imply that you must be passive. Rather, it’s about finding the right balance for your particular situation. Keep in mind that these conversations can be emotionally draining. Be sure to diligently practice daily self-care.
Proceed With Respect
If someone chooses confidentiality, it is not your place to discuss their situation publicly or with others. Also, put in the work to remain both respectful and non-judgmental. The goal is to recruit allies on the job to make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable discussing all sorts of topics — including mental health.
Lead By Example
If you feel enough comfort and confidence, you can be the ice-breaker. Choose a time that doesn’t feel rushed or inappropriate and get the ball rolling.
Be a Good Listener
When others open up, they are relying on you to honor their journey. So, give them your full attention. Ask questions. Again, do not make assumptions. Hone your listening skills.
Opportunity for culture shift?
When everyone is on board, a culture shift can be more rapid and sustainable. If applicable, it may be helpful to get the union involved. Gain the trust of management and recruit them to this invaluable effort. After all, people in all positions are vulnerable to mental health problems.
I can help you gain the skills and assertiveness needed to make this happen. Let’s connect very soon so I can help you with working through depression or anxiety and help you in communicating effectively about your challenges if you feel that it’s appropriate for your work situation and career.
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