We Don’t Just Need to Speak About Mental Health, We Need to Listen

Demi Lovato has done something startling since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder five years ago. She has talked about it – openly and without shame or embarrassment. By doing so, the young pop singer has become a mental health advocate with a powerful anti-stigma message: Those with mental health challenges can improve, and they deserve help in claiming their full share of life’s joys. 

Recently, Lovato took her advocacy another step with the launch of Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, a joint campaign that includes several mental health organizations and that encourages people to use their voices and experiences to prompt change in the way we view and deal with these issues.

As someone who helps those with mental health and addiction issues, I applaud Lovato’s straightforward advocacy. Each time we hear a personal story from those dealing with issues such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression or addiction (which so often evolves out of an attempt to self-medicate away mental pain), we come a step closer to real understanding. Still, speaking up is only part of the picture if we are to effect change. Those on the other side of the conversation need to do their share by truly listening and responding with support and action. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Get educated. Stigma about mental illness is alive and well for a reason; many remain woefully ignorant. The good news is a wealth of information is just a click away. Visit sites such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the International Bipolar Foundation, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to name just a few. You’ll learn such facts as these:

  • Mental health conditions are thought to evolve out of multiple, interlinking causes such as genetics, environment and lifestyle. Brain structure and biochemical processes also play a role. In other words, it’s not a defect of character.
  • Each year, one in five of us deals with a mental illness.
  • Mental illness can be treated. Many reclaim full and productive lives. (Witness Lovato.)

We Don’t Just Need to Speak About Mental Health, We Need to ListenDon’t turn away. If a friend or loved one opens up to you about their mental health challenge and you respond by connecting less frequently or pulling away, you’ve repaid their openness by doing the exact opposite of what they need. Yes, it can be distressing to hear that someone you care about is dealing with a mental illness. But just as with a physical illness, they’ll have a much better outcome with your support. Most important, remember that the mental health condition is something they are dealing with, but it is not what or who they are. (You’ll find some specifics on responding positively in my blog “11 Ways to Help a Friend With Bipolar Disorder.”)

Bridge the mental and physical divide. Those with mental illnesses are often told, “It’s all in your mind.” That doesn’t make it any less real, however. And the mind is part of the body. Why do we insist on splitting the mental and the physical, especially when they are so deeply interrelated? Rather than stigmatizing mental health as something “other,” let’s start working on fostering better overall health that includes all of our mental and physical components.

Lobby for mental health treatment. The Affordable Care Act and federal parity requirements have helped expand mental health coverage, but serious holes remain. Many people still find it difficult to connect with treatment providers who will help them, and coverage often puts unrealistic limits on the treatment amounts. Get active in encouraging legislators to create a system that gets help to people when and where they need it.

Get help for your own struggles. It can feel comforting to split the world into the “crazy” and the “sane” and to plant yourself firmly on the sane side, but the reality is that most of us will deal with something related to mental health at some point in our lives. Reach out for help when you need it and you’ll not only prevent your issue from snowballing, you’ll make it that much more likely others will feel comfortable following your example – and that’s good for all of us.

Photo courtesy of Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health

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