May is mental health awareness month.  Throughout the month we have seen many Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat posts, videos, ads and commercials, as well as, many community events; all supporting and promoting mental health awareness and working towards ending the stigma attached to mental illness.  All of these activities are amazing and are great ways to raise awareness. But mental health awareness month is only 31 days. What about the other 334 days of the year? As a society, we need to continue to promote awareness of mental health everyday to really make an impact; and work towards ending the stigma associated with mental health. So how do we, as individuals, go about working towards this change?

Talk About It

Talk openly about mental health. Now I don’t mean going up to complete strangers, and giving them a two minute lecture on the importance of mental health.  I mean talking about it in everyday conversations. For example if a friend or acquaintance shares with you that they are feeling a little down or depressed, don’t just brush off the comment and say “you’ll feel better tomorrow” or “just be positive”.  Instead ask, “do you want to talk about” or maybe “sometimes I feel that way too”. Engage in these types of conversations instead of shying away from them. You can also talk about your own struggles or experiences with mental health. Maybe you answer honestly when someone asks you if you’re okay, and you’re not.  Or maybe you reach out to someone when you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Initiating these conversations can get you the support you need, allow others to help you, and normalize mental health discussions; which eventually will help eliminate the stigma.

Change Your Language

Be intentional with your language when discussing mental health.  Work towards using empowering language. For example, replace the word victim with the word survivor.  We have often heard people who have experienced trauma be described as a “trauma victim”. Using the term victim has a negative connotation and implies weakness of an individual.  However using the term survivor, has positive connotation as well as highlights a person’s strength. Another shift we can use when talking about mental health, is using language the separates a person from their diagnosis.  You will often here people equate themselves with their illness. Such as “I’m depressed” or “I’m OCD”. They’re not. They are an individual who struggles with depression or struggles with OCD. They themselves are not the disorder.  Making this distinction is an important one. We want individuals to know that they are not their illness; their illness is external and does not define them. Another way you can use language to help normalize mental health is by discussing it as you would physical health.  Asking someone if they are feeling anxious should be said in the same way you would ask someone if they had a migraine. Reminding people that mental illness is no different than physical illness can also help work towards destigmatizing mental health.

Be Supportive

There is often a misconception about what being supportive means. People often assume you have to “fix” or make something “better” in order to be supportive.  That is simply not true. Support is simply letting someone know that you’re there for them. Whether they want to talk or have someone to sit with them. Sometimes just someone acknowledging that its okay to not be okay is all the support someone needs. Support can also be as simple as saying something genuine and positive to the struggling person, without any expectations.  Just letting a person struggling with mental illness that you still see them as the amazing person they are can be very meaningful. Being supportive also means not dismissing someone’s feelings. For example; saying things like- “But you were just smiling”. “You were fine yesterday”. “There’s nothing to worry about”. “You’re just overreacting”. Are not only unhelpful but can actually make the person struggling feel worse.  Instead acknowledge their feelings- “I know your struggling right now, can I sit with you?” Or “Its okay to feel sad/angry/anxious”. Remember acceptance and support go hand in hand.

Continue to help build awareness about mental health by: talking about it, changing your language, and being supportive. It’s society’s responsibility to raise mental health awareness and work towards ending the stigma all 365 days of the year.  

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