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May 15, 2023

Mental Health – Let's Get Our Heads Around It

Keith Jackson

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Note: a version of this blog first appeared in 2018. We have since updated it to bring you the best advice.

Mental health issues make people feel uncomfortable. I'm not talking about people who suffer from them – I mean the people who don't. When you don't have any personal experience of poor mental health, it can be – excuse the pun – difficult to get your head around.

If you meet a friend or co-worker hobbling along on crutches, you can immediately sympathize and empathize. You notice and process the clues easily, because you recognize what you see, and understand its likely consequences. And it's possible that you've suffered a similar injury yourself in the past, and almost literally "feel their pain."

But the clues that someone has a mental health issue can be far more difficult to identify and react to.

Chances are, someone with such a condition is doing their best to hide it. They'll forego the opportunity to receive any of that same sympathy and empathy because it's risky. Having anything less than 100 percent good mental health holds a stigma. So it can be tricky to know what to say if someone does confide in you, or if you find out some other way.

Mental Health Is a Battle on Two Fronts

Social awkwardness is unfortunate, but the shame and fear it can lead to can create lasting damage.

People can be extremely reluctant to reveal their mental struggles because of the potential impact on their careers and relationships. And so they fight on two fronts – managing the condition itself and trying to present a "normal" façade to the rest of the world.

I described my own, mercifully short, battle with post-traumatic stress after a serious motorcycle accident in this Mind Tools blog. I still recall the fear I had of talking to anyone – family, friend or work colleague – about that consequence of the crash.

The isolation and sense of worthlessness that many people experience as a result of mental health issues can be devastating, as highlighted by the World Health Organization. The 2022 WHO report reveals that even when help is available, it's not taken up. The authors said, "People will often choose to suffer mental distress without relief rather than risk the discrimination and ostracization that comes with accessing mental health services."

Wellbeing in the Workplace

I like to think that, as individuals, we can overcome our initial awkwardness and confusion at learning that a colleague is facing a health challenge, and that we will be supportive and accepting. After all, isn't this what we need ourselves whenever we're having a tough time?

But can organizations do more to help us all to succeed and thrive at work?

Managers have to balance their responsibilities to their team members and to their organization. And, when it comes to health, these responsibilities need not conflict.

A workplace that's safe, both physically and mentally, and that enables its people to look after themselves and one another, will likely suffer less absenteeism and presenteeism. It will support more honest conversations, and engender more loyalty and trust. And all of these attributes can surely only help the bottom line.

This Mind Tools video explores six ways that organizations, leaders, and managers can support their people's mental health.

Points to Ponder: What Are Your Experiences of Mental Health at Work?

If you've managed someone facing a mental health issue, what strategies did you use? And if you've ever discussed your own mental health with your manager or co-workers, what reaction did you get? What approach does your organization take to mental health, and why?

If you would like to explore Mind Tools resources on mental health, here's a list for further reading:

Personal Financial Stress and Wellbeing
Hurry Sickness
How to Deal With Anxiety
Managing Stress
Managing Post-Traumatic Growth

About the Author:

Keith is a managing editor at Mind Tools and has been part of the content team since 2015. He's an experienced editor, writer and manager, with a long history of working in the e-learning and media industries.

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28 comments on “Mental Health – Let's Get Our Heads Around It”

  1. I feel that a lot of the stigma attached to mental health comes from the language we use. In my opinion, the term 'mental health' is itself stigmatizing. It has long been associated with shame and I believe that as long as we continue to use this term, it will be difficult to reduce stigma in any significant way. I propose that we all begging to replace the term 'mental health' with the term 'mind health' and do so sweepingly and swiftly in our research, clinical settings, education and health sectors as well as in everyday conversation.

    1. This is a great comment, Paula. Thanks for sharing your thoughts - it's something I will definitely start paying attention to from now on.

    2. I totally agree Paula... I think we really need something other than 'mental health'. I had thought of polling opinion for an alternative name... but I do think 'mind health' fits the bill.

    3. I agree Paula that there is stigma and shame around issues about 'mind health'. Yet, the more we can bring it out in the open and talk about it, the better. Once you shine a spotlight on shame, the less negative impact it has.

  2. I have tried both strategies. "Hiding" or "wearing a mask" to work and "trusting" HR and supervisors by disclosing. Neither turned out well. If you hide it, people will likely not understand why you are the way you are even though you're trying your best to "be" like everyone else. If you take a chance by trusting and telling them, they may ultimately use it against you (without using "it" against you). Many people with mental health issues are intelligent, hard working, and conscientious who care very much about their jobs, their company, and their co-workers. In the future, I won't disclose any mental illness or personality disorder to my employer because (a) even though they tell you that you can trust them, they may not turn out be trustworthy at all, and (b) they may ultimately use it against you even though there are "laws" against it. I do not mean to generalize and throw all businesses in the same basket, but this has been my experience.

  3. MINDfulness in the workplace is everybodies business, we certainly need to highlight the importance of the balance between the organisational requirements and the person with the disability , the hurtful fact is this, sometimes a person with a hangover is likely to get more sympathy in the workplace than somebody with a mental health issue. That is just not good enough - education, trust and understanding are the three ingredients required for ongoing change in our workplaces to enable us to make a real difference.

    1. Thanks Margaret for making the point that it is education, trust and understanding that are essential in the workplace for more people to understand mental health issues. I think we still have some way to go though to get more understanding surrounding this area.

  4. I totally agree with Marissa. I experienced the same issues. Ppl are not ready to deal with staff facing an invisible illness. As soon as you mention mental health they see you as weak, they treat you as a disable person. Whatever happens they always use that as a referral. Throw on your face every day that you have a problem. We don't need reminders. Besides ppl who suffers an illness are not defined by it. However if you had depression or any other mental health issue you are defined as if you were by others. Very sad.

  5. First up, great article. Well done and thanks for posting.
    Secondly, I have a few comments... lots actually but I'll be brief
    In my view, only someone who is afflicted with this illness can truly appreciate the utter helplessness when in the midst of an episode. The social stigmas serve only to make it unbearable.
    Tackling it in the workplace is a greater challenge than it's made out to be, especially when the very nature of the environment in which I work directly contributes to it on so many levels. My industry? Call centres. Need I say more about this ridiculously contradictory workplace?

  6. Hi all. I have a Mental health issue, and I am not ashamed of it, anymore than a person with crutches would be ashamed of walking around at work with them. It is not me who has the problem with my mental health condition, so why would I need to wear a mask any more than a person would cover up a broken leg. The whole conversation here is focusing on the individual with a mental health condition as the victim. I don't consider myself a victim, and I have no plans to do otherwise. Was I victimised when I broke my leg? Was I victimised when I suffered PTSD? No. So perhaps it is those who practise stimatisation who need to change. Perhaps education on broken legs and PTSD should be the focus, not lessons on how to run and hide. You all have good intentions, but those intentions are clouded by a lack of understanding. We know how to help a person with a broken leg - leave them alone and it may heal with some good medical attention. It is the hidden factor of mental health that causes the confusion and stigma. I also have a heart condition. Would you like me to call that a pulminary malfunction? Of course not. However, we all know how to deal with that illness and someone suffering with it because we have been educated on what to do. Educate yourselves on how mental health issues cause illness in the sufferer and perhaps the stigma will fall away naturally. A mental health issue is a mind/body illness, not some mystical occurrence of being possessed. It can be understood, diagnosed, and treated, like a broken leg or a bad heart.

    1. Thanks GoldenBoy for sharing your experiences. As you say, education certainly helps. We can all learn how to better address and deal with people with mental health issues when we hear from those that have the experience with dealing with mental health issues themselves!

  7. After suffering myself with depression and wearing a mask at work for the 18 months that I was battling it I can certainly say it is more draining trying to cover it up and "act normal" than being open and honest. Luckily I have coworkers who had/have been in the same boat as me and were supportive.

    The same cannot be said of my partner who opened up to both HR and her line manager and received no support whatsoever.

    There are certainly 2 sides of the coin that need to be viewed. It doe need to be a more commonly spoken about issue that everyone feels safe divulging any problems they have.

  8. People with no mental health problems dont get it. I was dismissed through having poor mental health, unfortunatly after reaching an agrerment with my old employers I had to sign a NDA and therefore am unable to say how diabolically I was treated. But what lead to the dismissal was partly my fault for not telling anyone and trying to hide it.

    Would it have been different if I had disclose my poor mental health at the time? I don't think so, due to the culture at the company!
    Employers have to learn and have polices in place to combat this silent epidemic sweeping this country and their workplaces. To this end I have set up a training course to help Company's to do the right thing, the result being that EVERYONE benefits.
    This is not a promotional comment as I have not left a contact address,, but if you are an employer please do something to address mental health in the workplace.

    1. I agree with you Rob that employers need to have policies in place to deal with this often unspoken issue. I wish you all the best for your course and I am sure that by coming from experience, you have lots of value to share!

  9. All your comments are Awesome and encouraging. I feel one of largest issues of mental health, mind health, or over rated ego is not being award that you yourself could possibly suffer from such a character defect is crazy. I not crazy, I don't need a mental evaluation, there isn't anything wrong with me. Do I look mental to you , really ? These and many other are some of the basic forms of denial when it comes to that area of moral inventory. If you can't look within yourself and do an honest assessment of your very own mentality, you may suffer from a mental illness without knowing. There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to mental health for it along with spiritual and physical are the three crown jewels to personal development.
    Personal Development was a major avenue that opened my eyes to my own mental health. It allowed me to ask myself those questions that opens our minds up to who we really are. In my situation and I Thank God for it, at age 45 I realized that I had issues with certain types of behavior. I didn't think I was crazy but there sure was a few abnormalities which were not satisfying to my personal development plan.
    I think a better way to mask the cruel and shameful conversation of mental health with an ongoing agenda to incorporate personal development into any workplace. There is not one type of workplace no different than another when it comes to one's personal development. Personal Development is a sure pathway to freedom . I know this because it worked for me and with a driven desire will work for you.
    At age 45 I was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia Schizoaffective !!! With the personal development plan I choose allows me to be at peace with myself. That diagnosis saved my life. I didn't allow it to define me but to be part of my refining process to a better life.

    1. Thank you Marion for sharing your experiences and glad to hear that you have a plan to deal with the diagnosis. Incredible to hear that the diagnosis saved your life and helped you to put in place strategies for coping with the challenges.

  10. Totally agree that we need a discourse change re mental health. I do like 'mind health' but we still have to unpack what this means for our clients and for us as practitioners. It is no different from other labels (ASD, ADHD, FASD....) which all have similar impact.

  11. Interesting article! Mental Health at work must be registered at the ethic chart of any engaged and responsible company. This will responsibilize mutually more the CEO and workers.

    1. I do hope that more companies become serious about supporting employee's well-being and mental health. Since this world-wide health situation with COVID, it has become even more important to pay attention to employee's well-being and, fortunately, it has become more accepted to talk about it.

  12. Showing empathy and listening to individuals going through a hard time is key, regardless of the term we are using, wether it's mental health or mind health, we are still labeling the person. If you put yourself in other peoples shoes and accept them the way they are, it will help you to focus on the positive characteristics and therefore bring the best out of them and yourself. Mental health should not be seen as an obstacle an employee must overcome, but rather a part of their identity that deserves acceptance and catering.

    1. Love how you expressed those thoughts! Acceptance and listening ... simple things yet can make a profound difference!

  13. The worst thing one can do is say it cannot happen to me... The biggest mountain you will conquer is by admitting you have a problem and speaking to someone about it.

    1. So true Alan! No one is immune to struggling with their mental health, just like with our physical health. Yes, there are certainly things we can do to strengthen our health, yet it's important to know when to ask for help!

  14. This article was great. My curiosity is not just regarding this article but our society. Why do we continue to refer to the health of our brains as mental health. When one has a heart condition, it's called cardiovascular health. Why have we as a society not started calling it what it is "brain health". This may just help remove some of the stigma. We are truly talking about our brains not functioning at their best - just like that leg injury, heart condition, or thyroid condition. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks Jane for sharing your thoughts. The language we use does indeed impact on us and how we view things and I agree that there is some stigma around the use of 'mental health'!

  15. “Useful post” 👏❤️

    This info was very much important and required to be discussed.

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