Let’s Change the Conversation About Mental Health

By Stephanie Thomas

We’re a country with 40 million adults battling mental illness.1 That’s no small number. And yet, people with mental illness can often be marginalized. Fortunately, there are many initiatives and organizations that seek to change this.

For nearly 70 years, Mental Health America has led the charge in reaching people with the truth about mental illness, and this May is no different.2 What we love about this year in particular is the focus on whole-person health.

Addressing the whole person naturally changes the way we view mental health

Two women having coffeeWhen we view mental health as just one piece of what makes up a complex person, we help ourselves and others to categorize it appropriately.

Consider the difference between these two examples:

  1. A friend struggles with depression. In your eyes, depression is a defining characteristic. When you think about this person, the word “depressed” comes to mind, and you treat her accordingly. Distance is inevitable.
  2. A friend struggles with depression. In your eyes, depression represents just one part of a person’s many unique qualities. When you think about this person, the words “mom, sister, friend, stylish, clever, loyal” come to mind, and you treat her accordingly. Encouragement is natural.

Even better? If we can move mental health into the realm of general wellness, sufferers can seek treatment with confidence. Think about it. People looking to better themselves in most other areas do so with enthusiastic support.

Maybe you want to:

  • Eat better
  • Exercise more
  • Make career advancements
  • Learn something new
  • Grow in relationship with others

You’ll be more likely to move with the wind at your back – friends, family and resources cheering you on your way. Why shouldn’t the goal of improving mental health be added to this list?

Does How We Talk About Mental Illness Prevent People From Getting Help?

Of course, we can’t stop with the thoughts we think. We have to adjust the words we say. Imagine for a moment that your dad experiences a mild heart attack. He’s OK, for now. But none of you know what the future holds. First things first: He needs to see a cardiologist.

Unfortunately, society talks about heart issues as though they are a personal failure. Your dad doesn’t want to wear that label, so he misses out on creating an action plan for healing. Sounds unfathomable, right?

If your dad had bipolar disorder instead of heart disease, it wouldn’t be so surprising for the conversations surrounding his struggle to keep him from getting help. That’s because people with mental illness regularly face stigma. And stigma is often a huge barrier to treatment.1

Flipping the Script

Sam Webb, founder of Livin.org, sat down with us on the Recovery Unscripted podcast to talk about how his organization fights stigma – and how each of us can find a way to join the cause.

Livin’s mantra is “It ain’t weak to speak.” This gets to the core of what we’re aiming for in changing the conversation around mental health. If we communicate to others – through both words and actions – that we welcome their stories of heartache and pain, and that speaking out is a sign of strength, we swing the door wide open for them to walk through on the way to healing.

Challenge yourself to look for ways to portray this mantra to the people around you.

 Sam Webb


Want to learn more about how to approach conversations about mental health? Listen to this interview with Sam Webb, founder of Livin, which originally appeared on the Recovery Unscripted podcast.

Conversation Guide: How to Talk About, Listen to and Share Mental Health Issues

Let’s get practical for a moment. What does it look like to center our mental health conversations around the whole person? In other words, how do we discuss these issues in a way that’s helpful to the people living with them every day?

When talking in general terms about mental health, remember to:

  1. Educate yourself first. If you aren’t already an expert on mental health topics, that’s OK. That’s where everyone starts.3 Just don’t stay that way. Commit to keeping your mouth closed on the subject until you understand it better.
  2. Consider the whole person. When you do choose to talk about mental illness, do so in a way that honors the person, or people groups, you are speaking about. Avoid using labels and instead reference mental illness as a condition that a multifaceted person struggles with.

When a friend or loved one struggles with mental health issues, remember to:

  1. Listen with the goal of understanding. If someone musters up the courage to share their mental health struggles with you, take them seriously. Ask questions and seek to understand what they’re going through, what triggers negative emotions and how you might be able to help.3
  2. Encourage treatment and offer to help them find it. Studies show that treatment works wonders for between 70 and 90 percent of patients.5 Your gentle push in the right direction just might change the life of your friend or family member.

When deciding whether or not to share your own story, remember:

  1. Speaking out can help you gain perspective. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, you may feel alone in your struggles.3 By opening up to others around you, you’re likely to find yourself in good company. After all, one in five American adults have dealt with mental health issues in the last year alone.5
  2. Your recovery story may inspire someone else. The antidote to stigma is hope. If you’ve battled depression, suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder or any other mental health issue and worked your way to the other side. You, my friend, are a beacon of hope.


1 Binder, Renee M.D. Let’s Talk About the Way We Talk About Mental Illness. American Psychiatric Association, September 23, 2015.

2 Mental Health Month. Mental Health America, Accessed April 13, 2018.

3 Changing the Way Society Views Mental Illness. Recovery Unscripted, Accessed April 13, 2018.

4 How Should We Talk About Mental Health? TED Ideas, December 18, 2013.

5 Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health. The Carter Center, Accessed April 13, 2018.

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