Being a Mental Health Ally for Your Colleagues (and Yourself!)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, each year millions of Americans (as many as 1 in 5) experience mental illness. In the past, many of us might have believed that mental health was a concern only for those with mental illness, but living through a lengthy pandemic, and all the stresses and repercussions it brings, has forced many of us to face the reality of our mental health challenges.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and while stereotypes and misinformation about mental illnesses have made it difficult for some people to seek help for treatable issues, it is possible to be an ally in fighting stigma and supporting the mental health community. Allies can create safe spaces where people feel comfortable discussing their mental state, seeking treatment, and sharing their stories with others.

What are some ways you can be an ally this week and advocate for mental health in your workplace?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Educate yourself and others. Our fears around mental illness often come from a lack of education and understanding. Take some time this week to research some mental health topics using trusted resources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the World Health Organization (WHO).
  2. Check your biases. Katherine Ponte writes in the Harvard Business Review: “Reflecting on and correcting your own implicit bias around mental health will help you be an ally to your colleagues. You may not mean to contribute to the stigma, but even an unintentional stigma is hurtful. Think about any assumptions or preconceptions you may have about mental health conditions and the people who deal with them. Then, discard them.” Unsurprisingly, none of us get this perfect first time. We all make mistakes, and it’s important that we exercise grace for others – and for ourselves – when we see these mistakes play out.
  3. Take gentle steps. If you notice a significant change in a colleague’s mood or behavior (missed deadlines, impaired concentration, reduction in work quality, unexplained absences etc.), you may want to see how you can support them. There is no ‘right way’ to do this, but it’s best to start with some gentle open-ended check-in questions such as “How are you feeling today?” or “How is your week going?” Consider different methods of communication to build on the initial exchange, and use supportive, person-first language. Katherine Ponte’s recent HBR article has some great suggestions for language you might want to use, and some to avoid.
  4. Be mindful of your words and the impact they have. You may be contributing to stigma around mental health without realizing it. If you often describe things or people as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane,’ consider using alternative words. Remember too that your words may be giving people hope in challenging times – notice when others’ words have a positive impact on you, and let them know; perhaps your words are also making a difference for those around you.
  5. Take care of your own mental health. Just as you would seek help for persistent physical problems, you should take your mental health seriously also. Advocate for your own mental health, take mental health days from work (and let others know you’re doing it to help normalize it), and seek treatment for persistent mental health challenges anytime you need it. If you feel comfortable doing so, share your story with others to lower stigma and help raise awareness; you never know who that might help.
  6. Work with your organization to offer workshops and classes. Informational events can provide useful background knowledge to all employees. If you’re in a position to organize a workshop, consider doing so! Or speak to those who can. Several organizations offer workplace training, the most popular being the Mental Health First Aid Course offered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. Mental health nonprofits such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide training.

Engage in being a mental health ally for others – and yourself! – this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear what you learn about yourself and others as you do.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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