Mental health can be hard to talk about.
It’s a complex subject difficult for those with mental illness to explain, and equally hard for those without it to understand.
But since silence is not the solution, how do we approach this sensitive topic with a friend or loved one without inadvertently offending them and damaging the relationship?
Mediator Dan Berstein offers some advice, based on his own experiences with bipolar disorder and his later work with organizations and businesses on the topic.
After his diagnosis, Berstein spent years seeking out ways to help people talk about mental health, eventually discovering mediation and conflict resolution techniques and their applicability to improved mental health communication.
In a 2017 TEDx talk on the subject, he identifies the three main obstacles to good communication on mental health as assumptions, paternalism, and stigma.
There are so many ways that we can accidentally offend people, Berstein says, but these three are the main offenders. Stopping them includes not assuming we know what’s going on with someone when it comes to mental health, not telling someone what’s best for them including suggestions of treatment options or resources, and not stigmatizing people based on their diagnosis.
Once we’ve stopped making assumptions, we can begin by asking questions, a much better approach, according to Berstein.
“We have to make room to listen to other people’s perspectives,” he said.
He also advocates for replacing paternalism with respect for people’s choices.
“Too often we spend our time telling people our answers, instead of trying to learn from theirs,” he said.
One statement Berstein suggests saying to someone whose choices seem different than your own, is this: “I know this is your choice. Can you help me understand what’s important to you when you’re making that choice?”
“When we frame our conversations as discussions about people’s personal choices, then we empower people. We make room for the other story,” Berstein said.
Making these conversations more accepted can help us address the widespread reality of mental health problems. The reality is that mental health in our nation is challenging for many of us and nearly all of us know what it is to feel down or anxious.
According to Berstein, over 40 million Americans have a diagnosable mental health problem each year and close to half of us will experience one at some point in our lives.
“We have to learn how to connect and have important conversations about mental health, without offending each other,” he said. “...But we can’t have them if we’re afraid to broach the subject.”
Keep that in mind the next time you consider having a conversation about someone’s mental health. If you’re unsure what to say, start by asking a question. Maybe someday, someone will do the same for you.