The five DOs and DON’Ts of talking about mental health

Author and mental health writer Lucy Nichol tells us: "Mental illness does not discriminate"

There’s been tonnes in the media about mental health stigma. The Time To Change campaign is fighting it, mental health warriors are out in full force, Denise Welch is calling out Piers Morgan, Harry, Wills and Kate gave the Heads Together campaign the royal seal of approval and the whole damn world is screaming ‘say no to stigma, kids!’ Or so it seems…

With all this going on, perhaps you should just keep quiet? After all, you don’t want the wrath of the mental health police on your case, right?

WRONG. It’s really not that difficult to talk about mental health responsibly. In fact, those who do get people’s backs up are highly unlikely to be doing so ignorantly. Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins thrive on controversy after all. And whatever we think of them, they’re certainly not stupid.

So I’d suggest one simple rule when talking about mental health. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person living with mental illness. With that in mind, here are our dos and don’ts:

DON’T call me ‘crazy’

What is crazy? The guy down the road who hears voices? The couple who spent £10,000 following Taylor Swift from gig to gig or the super-fan who got a full body Kiss tattoo? It’s the guy down the road who we heavily stereotype, sadly.

It seems we, as a society, decide what is crazy and what isn’t. Don’t.

 DON’T belittle me

When we think about stigma, the ‘crazy’ concept is what first springs to mind. But take a trip to the other end of the spectrum and you’ve got stigma of a very different kind…

“It’s life, get over it”

“What have you got to be anxious about?”

“There are people living in war torn countries, you know”

“Cheer up, love”

Piers Morgan called Will Young a whiny needy twerp on Twitter when he spoke out about PTSD – an anxiety-related disorder. And that’s just one of too many examples where this has happened.

Sure, we can say that depression and anxiety are the more prevalent of the mental illnesses – but that doesn’t mean they are any easier to live with. Somebody with schizophrenia may be able to function well in life, while someone with depression may not – and vice versa.

The impact is what’s most important and we need to remember that it’s often not publicly visible. Don’t assume you know what someone else is going through.

 DO try to see the whole me

Mental illness doesn’t define people. Just because Lemony Snicket’s Aunt Josephine was a nervous wreck who was terrified of leeches and estate agents, doesn’t mean that’s how all people with anxiety disorders present.

A successfully hilarious comedian may be living with depression (just look at Susan Calman who has written about her experiences) and a true force of nature may be living with anxiety (just look at the awesome Natasha Devon MBE who put her neck on the line when she spoke out boldly and truthfully on behalf of children’s mental health). You can check her no nonsense book out here too (plug alert).

People are not their mental illness. They are great workmates, loyal friends, talented musicians, social butterflies, creative writers, super organised project managers, rich folk, poor folk, gregarious or shy…mental illness does not discriminate.

DO look beyond my symptoms

What do Amy Winehouse, Denise Welch and Ant McPartlin have in common? We all want to scream ‘the drink! The demon drink!’ But that’s just a symptom of something else.

People don’t decide they want to become an addict. They don’t decide to head off to Substance Misuse University with a clear goal in mind. More than likely, their goal is to feel less isolated, less distressed, less depressed. Sadly, sometimes, people see substances as their only option in the quest to find peace.

It’s not about partying. There’s nothing fun about being addicted. NOBODY would choose that life. There’s always something else going on behind the scenes. Again, let’s not assume we know what that is. But let’s not judge based on our voids of knowledge.

DO talk!

Finally, you don’t need to create special events or opportunities to talk about mental health. Someone might walk into work one day and say ‘Mornin!’ Bangin’ migraine today. Head is pounding, mate’. Nobody would raise an eyebrow.

So why can’t you walk in and say ‘Mornin’. Shattered today. The mother of all panic attacks kept me up all night.’

What’s the difference?

We can do all the big gestures, campaigns and formalities. But now it’s time to normalise mental health. Ask how someone is. Share your story over a cuppa in the office kitchen. Don’t be afraid to start that conversation – whether it’s at work, uni, home or at the bus stop. Talking has the power to save lives.

Words by Lucy Nichol

Lucy Nichol’s book ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes – naming and shaming mental health stigmas’ is out now

Lucy’s book ‘A series of unfortunate stereotypes – naming and shaming mental health stigmas’ is available to order from Amazon and Waterstones now.

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