So easy, are broken bones. You understand the pain, the doctor sees the problem on the x-ray, friends and strangers alike see the cast, the crutches, and are eager to hold the door for you.
So hard, are obsessive thoughts, negative self-talk, anxiety, and a wide range of intermittent or chronic mental health issues. You struggle to understand the pain, the doctor can’t image it nor provide a cast, your friends can’t see an icon or an emblem that instantly conveys to them that you need, want, and deserve support.
Yet, it does not have to be this way. Each of us can create the change that benefits all of us, whether we have experienced day-to-day stressors, emotional ups and downs, grief, a diagnosed mental illness, or not. We can make a change with ourselves, in our families, with our friends, and at work.
The change I’m advocating for is simple: see and treat mental health simply as health. It rolls easily off our tongues when we say: I'm going to physical therapy, because my lower back has been hurting. Or, I think I need to get an ankle brace so I don’t hurt myself on the courts... No pause, no stigma, no surprise. We can create the same level of comfort, to say and to hear: So glad I have time with my therapist tomorrow; my anxiety has been derailing me. Or, I gotta find someone who can help me; some days I don’t even wanna get off the couch. We get mental health out of the shadows and into the light.
We can build a simple vocabulary that we can all embrace and understand, beginning with talking openly and honestly about our feelings, eg, I feel anxious today instead of I don’t feel well. For those with diagnosed illness, we can take the brave step to share it more publicly, eg, I am struggling with depression instead of I feel tired today. Or I have social anxiety instead of I have a conflict and can’t make it to the conference. Let’s all call it what it is. If that means we need to use words to describe how we feel, or describe our mental health, then so be it, make it the same as describing any ailment. This seems obvious, so why isn’t it easy?
As always, the best place to start is with yourself.
Look in the Mirror First
Try it. Get a mirror. Look at yourself. Then say what you see and what you think. This can help you better understand yourself and to prepare to let others see you. That is, I see me. Today, I’m committing to letting someone else see me. I’m going to peek out from behind the shield that I put up and show one person something about the real me. I have anxiety; it makes some days really difficult for me. I just wanted you to know that. You don’t need to do anything. I just needed you to know.
My Reality: For me personally, I struggle with obsessive thoughts about my eating habits and negative body self-image. At times, these obsessive and negative thoughts interfere with my ability to focus on things that are important to me. Here I am sharing me. Now you can see me.
Teach Your Family
Some of our best lessons for how to be and behave in the world come from home. Whenever possible, work to be transparent about your feelings and your own mental health journey with your family, especially if you are a parent (as appropriate; no need to pull our kids under when we’re drowning). Role model sharing when you are feeling anxious and what you are doing about it, and even how they can support you. Ask them regularly how they are doing and take their mental health challenges as seriously as you take their other illnesses and injuries. (If you don’t have a safe space at home to be honest about your own challenges, I am not suggesting you put yourself in a more vulnerable position. If this is you, hopefully you can find friends and a community where you can share the real you, or message me, I gotchu.)
My Reality: My children and my wife all know that at times I see a mental therapist who helps me navigate things in my mind, just as they know I see a physical therapist to help with my lower back issues.
Be Real With Your Friends
Make it OK for a friend or a colleague to say they’ve been feeling blue lately and don’t know why. Then, you can make the obvious reply, oh, I’m so glad you told me. Are you getting any help with that from a doctor or therapist? If you were bleeding from the eye or had broken your leg, I’d help you get to the Emergency Room. I’d also be there for you, listening to you talk about the struggle, the pain, the pain in the ass, that these health issues cause for you. I would also offer to bring food or organize regular meals for you. Let’s add mental health challenges to this obviousness. If you’re dealing with anxiety, disordered eating thoughts, or depression, I’m here for you. I’d be happy to help you and talk to you about the struggle, the pain, the pain in the ass, that these health issues cause for you.
My Reality: Over the past two plus years, I have been recovering from a concussion. As I talked with friends, sought advice from some previously concussed, and even blogged about it, I realized again how a physical injury, in my case a nasty wipeout while wake boarding, makes it easier to share. It was still a health issue in my brain, like other mental illnesses, but its cause somehow made it feel less private. And allowed me to be less protective. But why is this? Why are people less afraid, and even less ashamed, to share about issues and illnesses in other body parts? Like an irregular heartbeat or the need for a hip replacement? Why is there stigma attached to mental illnesses? In part, I believe, because they are hard to see (as-is a concussion, but the initial trauma is physical and visible) and in large part because we simply haven’t been taught or shown how to talk about them.
Lead & Role Model at Work
Remind those that work for you, and with you, that they are far more than their “expertise.” They are an indivisible whole person. They can no more leave their problems at the door, than they could leave one of their limbs at the door. We can and should invest in the overall health of the whole person. Not only is this the right and necessary way to operate, it also creates value in the workplace. Regardless of how you define value, I’m certain I have a formula that makes clear that seeing and caring for the mental wellness of everyone on your team is a winning investment.
In our restaurants, to ensure our team has mental health resources and to truly walk our talk, we invest in TalkSpace. This innovative, therapy service gives our team members and their family members access, for free, to their own dedicated, licensed mental health provider to connect via text, voice, or video messaging at their convenience and set up live video appointments. All of the therapy is provided through a secure, HIPAA-compliant platform. With TalkSpace, we have shattered the typical barriers to entry, eliminating the need to find a therapist, book an appointment, drive to a location, and then pay for it. We also provide access to traditional therapy through our employee assistance program. TalkSpace has proponents and detractors, but I say that breaking down barriers and creating access is always the right path; better to make progress than to stay still awaiting the ideal.
My Reality: Prior to our investment in TalkSpace, my biz partner and I shared our own personal mental health challenges at our bi-annual Town Hall meeting with one hundred of our managers, chefs, and support team. Our goal was to make it part of our company culture to be okay talking about mental illness as just health and a health challenge, and one more element of being human. At every Town Hall meeting, we also start the meeting with an expert guest speaker on mental health. When I am in the restaurants, I make it a point to look my teammates in the eye to convey that I care about whatever is deep in there. I try to stay quiet so they have the space to tell me what’s on their mind, work related or not.
I think it is beyond obvious why we should be eliminating barriers to mental wellness. The world would be a much kinder and more productive place if we all worked harder to see and honor the whole person, ourselves and others, and to role model conversations about our mental health.
So, let’s talk to ourselves, family, friends, and colleagues, and together let’s make it easy and obvious that mental health IS health.