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How to Talk About Mental Health to Combat Stigma


Absolutely. Let's do this. Thank you so much. Right, hello. Welcome to my talk about mental health, and how we can have a conversation about it, ideally without losing our mind. A bit of a content warning at the beginning. I will mention various mental health diagnoses, grief, trauma, and there is a brief mention of suicide as well, so I just wanted you to know that before we dive right in.

If you've been on the internet lately, you might have noticed that there is a lot of talk about mental health, but there is also a lot shit talking mental health.

For example, a short while back, Tom Holland post add video to announce he was going to take a break from social media for his mental health, which is a totally valid choice, and shared a bunch of helpful resources in his video, so that was really cool. As a reaction to it, Amy Schumer decided to post a video mocking him for it. Weird choice, in my opinion.

If you think back to 2021, Naomi and ... withdrew from prestigious sports companies for mental health reasons and faced significant public backlash, people saying things like, "They've let their country down." This one is a bit more of an oldie, depending how old you are, you might remember how everyone made fun of Anne Heisch20 years ago, when she was wandering around Fresno knocking on people's doors.

Even Rosie O'Donnell mocked her on stage. Or even maybe you've noticed how people have talked about Amber Heard, or speculated, or Brit me Spears' mental state.

This is as sad conclusion of how we as a society often talk about mental health. If we talk about it at all. Because, often enough, it's all hushed voices, talk behind closed doors, the leery curiosity involved, or a simple brutal judgment, but over the past few years I've also noticed that some things at least are changing and getting better.

Celebrities are still getting outed for their mental health of course, but what is fairly new that more and more celebrities have started opening up about their mental health by choice.

Many famous people are talking about their battles with depression and anxiety, and both have spoken up about their experiences about post-partum depression, and others about social identity disorder which is a particularly stigmatised condition.

I'm not famous but I started talking openly about my mental health. Without a huge platform, I've noticed that that has changed things for the better. And not just for myself. But for others as well.

My name's Kai, my pronouns are they/them, and I'm side stepping into DevRel and run a mental health project called Taboola Rasa. I'm going to tell you how that came about. We have to rewind to 12 years ago.

I went through a mental health crisis that profoundly changed how I interacted with the world. I was about 26 when my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. And instead of things afterwards returning to normal, my grief sort of cascaded into something else, something I couldn't name. And despite regular therapy, I wasn't really getting any better. I went to see a psychiatrist as you do and this person floated such ideas as depression and adjustment disorder, but none of that felt right to me.

Finally, I saw a different psychiatrist who happened to be a specialist for adult ADHD, and turns out I had undiagnosed ADHD my entire life, and that had led to a pretty severe burn-out, the grief about my dad dying, that was just the catalyst. Chances are very high that I would have burned out anyway at some point in the very near future back then.

So, yes, I got my ADHD diagnosis. I started taking ADHD medication which luckily works really well for me, and I kept going to therapy, and very slowly, very, very slowly, I got better.

Before I got better, while this was going on, I started talking openly about how I was doing. I told friends, acquaintances, strangers, even shared about it on social media. I really wish I could credit this to a grand idea or plan, or a noble thought, but the reality was just that I was too burned out and exhausted to fake being okay any more.

So when someone would innocently ask me, "How's it going?" I would tell them how it was going which I was depressed, burned out, exhausted. I was not okay, and I wasn't able to hide it any more. Now these are people who were using a standard greeting face of how are you doing, didn't know what they were getting into. There we were all of a sudden, having a conversation about mental health, a conversation that neither of us had planned for.

Back then, I saw the kinds of reactions. Some people were taken aback, and I don't blame them for it. It was a lot. Many, if not most of them, eventually got over their initial discomfort. And started listening. And then miraculously, they also started talking.

People started telling me about their struggles with mental health, or shared worries about loved ones that they had, maybe a parent with a personality disorder, a sister with ADHD, a colleague with bipolar, or a child with OCD.

As they talked - I often saw relief flood them, relief at not having to keep this hidden any more, of being able to tell someone, talk about it, without fearing judgment. They knew I was a safe place, and my sharing was somehow empowering them to open up and ask for help and seek support.

And in those situations, as I'm not a doctor, not a psychiatrist, not a therapist, what I would do is I would give advice that I could point to resources, recommend therapists and psychiatrists, clear up misconceptions, or simply provide a listening ear and understanding and judgment-free zone.

But I also couldn't help noticing how very little people often knew. Now with the media covering mental health topics more and more, there's a severe lack of awareness about both mental illnesses, and neurodivergence such as ADHD and autism. There's a lot of misinformation, assumptions, and stigma attached to it all. Some of the mis information can at least be entertaining.

In the early days when I told people I had ADHD, people asked does that mean you need a lot of attention because it is an attention deficit disorder, yes, I do need a lot of attention but that's unrelated to my ADHD! That was funny to me! A lack of awareness can lead to hurtful situations.

Someone once loudly asked, have you taken your meds today? I don't know if they did this thoughtlessly or maliciously — both would be possible with that person — but they did it in front of a group of people. I was uncomfortable in the situation. It is one thing for me to be open about my diagnosis, and even joke about it and talk about my medication, but quite another for someone to weaponise the condition against me or out me if not everyone in the room knew I had ADHD. These things happen, even if there is no diagnosis to be weaponised, for instance.

I was recently watching a reality show, and this guy asks his girlfriend who is being moody, "What is up with you, are you being bipolar?" That is not something you should ever say to anyone but additionally dead wrong because those short-term mood swings she was experiencing aren't even a symptom of bipolar disorder.

We've got misinformation, assumption, and stigmatisation rolled into one in this example. I- think the media is to blame for a lot of this, but we who consume media, arguably are the media, are to blame as well for, one, there is a general language when talking about mental health.

We talk about mental illness rather than mental health experiences. It is often suffering with mental health rather than living with it, and committed suicide rather than died by suicide. We arm-chair diagnose celebrities, base mental health experiences for bad behaviour and other times we use them as excuses for bad behaviour. We make fun of symptoms and mock people who exhibit them. How do we do better?

As we established already, not talking about mental health is not really the way. We need to find less harmful ways to talk about it. We can work to create an environment where talking about mental health becomes a safe option where people won't feel judged, misunderstood, or stigmatised if they open up about their mental health experiences.

One of the easiest ways everyone can contribute is by using inclusive language. I know it sounds extremely simple, and you are probably thinking how on earth are the words I use going to help? But Desmond Tutu said language is very powerful. It does not just describe reality but creates the reality it describes. I totally agree with that. I think language is extremely powerful. It's one of our main ways as humans to communicate with each other.

The language I use when talking about certain things is going to tell you where I'm at. I imagine you're queer, but you're not out, you're talking to someone and that person says, "Ew, that's so gay." Would you want to come out to this person? Would this person feel safe to you? I bet not.

Similarly, we should never use mental health conditions ask adjectives, either. Just like we know not to say that is okay when we don't like something, we should learn not to say someone is so bipolar because they were upset with us or behaving in ways we deem irrational.

Don't call someone borderline because they treated you badly. We really need to think of better words, words that actually describe what is happening rather than using mental health as a shorthand to describe everyday behaviour. If we are regularly calling other people crazy, psycho, lunatic, et cetera, we are stigmatising mental health conditions and their symptoms, and then we are surprised that people still have a hard time getting treatment for their mental health.

We are surprised when celebrities who have all the money and access to get help unalive themselves, and no-one knew before they were dealing with something this big.

But changing our language is actually ridiculously easy. Someone's crazy behaviour can simply be described as irrational or unpredictable instead. The beautiful thing about language having power is that language almost always gives us an alternative we can use instead of the hurtful thing. We just have to put a little effort in.

We have to care enough to want to create change. The other thing I've noticed is that people are downplaying mental health symptoms a lot. In the middle of burnout, I heard someone at the next table say, "Oh, I was so burned out last week." And I sat there, and I was taken aback.

Did this person want to imply that they cured their burnout from last week to this? Was I taking too long? Doing something wrong? Was I doing burn-out wrong? As everyone who has experienced burnout sadly knows, there is nothing as temporary burnout. If you were burn out last week, I have bad news for you — you will probably be burned out next week and probably next month. Burnout is not cured in a week. It takes three to five years or more to recover from it.

And what this person did was take a serious mental health concern that I was dealing with long-term and they used it to explain a fairly regular human experience, which is the feeling of exhaustion after a long week at work.

What could they have done differently? For example, they could have said I was so exhausted last week more than usual. That doesn't downplay burn-out, but still able to say how they're feeling and be taken seamer which is also super important because mental ill-health encompasses so much more than just diagnosable conditions.

It is important to distinguish individual symptoms from a whole diagnosis, so you can really order without having OCD. There is a difference between having a depressing day and being depressed. And you can be bad at reading social cues, but that alone doesn't make you autistic.

So when people borrow established diagnoses as a shorthand for how they're feeling, it blurs the lines between a fleeting experience or emotion, and a diagnosable mental health conditions, or neurodivergence, that can seriously impact a person's life long-term.

That makes it a lot harder for people who are seeking treatment and help, because to them, it seems like everyone is struggling with the same thing anyway. They don't realise their situation is different and more serious.

When I explain what ADHD people often react with, but everyone has procrastination issues. And that dismisses the struggle that someone with ADHD is facing because their procrastination issues are serious, heightened, and affects their life.

If someone says they have trouble concentrating with their ADHD, don't downplay that, or if you have ADHD, or suspect you do, don't say I'm so OCD. Consider turning it into, "I like it when things are organised." As I mentioned before, mental health experiences are also often used as an explanation for bad behaviour.

Like in Amber Heard's case, they used to slander someone's character. Mental health gets blamed for mass shootings rather than the patriarchy and laws. That is entirely unhelpful for people who have gotten those types of diagnoses.

In my case, the mistaken assumption that ADHD means I'm a stage hog is a fairly harmless mischaracterisation that I can laugh about because I am a stage hog! But the way the media has vilified Amber Heard while constantly underlining her BPD diagnosis is severely stigmatising and it doesn't make it any easier for people who also have a personality disorder to be open about it.

I understand that people often have this need to look for reasons for all kinds of behaviours, that is a human desire — but when we brand perpetrators with a certainly mental health condition, that also stigmatises the condition itself.

If someone who has a personality disorder happens to be violent and we started talking about that as if that is inextricably connected, then all people with that same personality disorder will be confronted with more stigma because public will assume they're also violent.

Of course, we don't have any direct control over what the media and other people do, but there are some things we can do to counteract these stigmatising conversations and narratives.

For one, you can change the way that you talk about mental health and make sure that you separate it from bad behaviour. You can stop buying, and these days, stop sharing media that stigmatises mental health conditions and equates them with that behaviour.

If you're feeling really brave, you can start calling others out when they talk that way. All I'm asking you to do is to stop fanning flames. It is so easy to be part of the solution and not the problem, and you can just do it just by changing your language. It is something you can do whether you have had run-ins with mental health experiences yourself, or not.

If you're personally have had or are having mental health experiences web then please consider possibly talking about it if you are in a safe position to do so. Obviously be careful not to trauma ... something I wasn't initially aware of, but it something I try to be conscious of now.

I often leave out the super gory details of trauma and focus on the effect it has had on my life. These days I also don't randomly hit people with the topic when they're just saying hi and asking me how are you doing. When I find myself in a conversation about mental health, that is your chance to bring your experiences to the table.

Your real-life experiences. It's an opportunity to clear up misconceptions, and to shine a light on people's prejudice, and it is a chance to educate. You sharing your story will be more meaningful to those people struggling with their mental health.

It might just make them feel a little bit less alone when they see you're just like them. Maybe they will feel empowered to get the support and help they need and maybe they will even find it in themselves to speak up as well at some point. It kind of has that snowball effect.

These kind of conversations can happen anywhere in person or online, but I reiterate, if it is not safe for you to share them, please don't. I can never emphasise enough that your safety comes first. Personally, I find sharing to be a really powerful thing. I

might have started sharing my story by accident because I couldn't fake being okay any more. But when I first noticed that me being honest and open about it helped counteract the silence, and the misinformation, it felt kind of amazing, and I wanted to do more than just tell my own story.

So in 2016, I set up a mental health awareness project called Taboola Rasa. The idea behind it is to wipe the proverbial slate clean and remove the taboos by interviewing people about their mental health experiences and sharing their stories. I haven't done loads with it in the last years because ironically, my mental health interfered but big plans for it in 2023.

The best way to create awareness and stigmatise mental health is to create room about it, which is what I want to do with Taboola Rasa and what I try to do in my everyday life. I'm keenly aware that our society is not well equipped for dealing with mental health stuff, even just hearing about it can be extremely uncomfortable for most people. But staying comfortable never changed anything.

So let's do our part and start talking about mental health without losing our minds. Thank you very much.