Start having the conversation about mental health right now.
The Colorado state legislature recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would offer minors free access to three sessions with mental health professionals. The bill states that “the Colorado crisis services hotline has experienced a thirty percent increase in calls and texts” since the beginning of the pandemic, and that kids visiting the emergency room for suicidal thoughts are up 10%.
This represents an important move by a state government toward acknowledging the incredible stress and disruption youth are facing during the pandemic and the toll that disruption takes on mental health.
It’s an incredible step, but kids aren’t the only ones struggling with mental health in the pandemic. A Census Bureau survey in December of 2020 found 42% of Americans experienced clinically significant symptoms of depression and anxiety that month, more than double the rate experienced in 2019.
The Colorado bill signals a greater openness to discussing mental health among those in positions of leadership in our nation. But we must also have these conversations at a local, community level to overcome stigma and ensure people feel comfortable accessing care.
These conversations help us feel supported, find the help we need, and realize we’re not alone. The good news is we don’t have to wait for lawmakers to start a dialogue. Here are a few simple ways you can start having conversations about mental health right now:
Remember that mental health challenges are incredibly common.
In any given (non-pandemic) year, the CDC reports 1 in 5 people experience a mental illness. Over 50% of people will receive a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime. That means everybody either experiences a mental illness or knows somebody who has—whether or not they’re talking about it. Knowing how common mental health challenges are can help us feel less afraid to open up about the toll pandemic stress is taking on us.
Look for safe people to open up to.
If you’re struggling and don’t know who to talk to, it’s helpful to think about how people in your life respond to others in difficult situations. Who do you know who was compassionate with a grieving friend? Who was a good listener when a coworker shared stress or fear? Who have you seen be supportive even when they didn’t know what to say?
When you’re opening up about your own anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, people may not always have answers. That’s okay. Chances are, if they’ve been kind and compassionate with other tough life circumstances, they will respond similarly to you. Those are good people to talk to.
Make it casual.
Don’t feel like you need to wait for a crisis to bring up mental health. It doesn’t have to be a big, scary topic. Instead, if it’s a casual part of conversation, people know it’s safe to open up when they’re struggling.
For example, casually mentioning something you learned in therapy normalizes getting support. You can also mention helpful books you’ve read or habits that support your mental health. And you can always take advantage of dates on the calendar (April: Stress Awareness Month, and May: Mental Health Month) that make it feel more natural to share.
Check-in with loved ones.
If you have kids, make it part of your regular conversation to normalize feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, or anger. Using age-appropriate language, say things like, “a lot of people experience difficult feelings when there’s a lot of stress. This has been an extra-stressful year for most people with the pandemic. How are you feeling?”
If you’re worried about somebody, let them know you’re concerned. You can say something like, “I’ve noticed you seem down/withdrawn/stressed/etc. lately. How are you really doing? How’s your mental health?”
No matter who you’re talking to, don’t feel like you have to have the answers. Just listen, validate, and let them know you care and are willing to help them find the support they need. Don’t underestimate the potential of your words to help those struggling feel safe, hopeful, and cared for.
Mental health is fluid, changing all the time. That means productive mental health conversations aren’t one-and-done. Instead, as we keep talking about it, we overcome stigma and create a world where it’s easier for all of us to get the support we need.
If you or somebody you know is in crisis, you can get support through the Crisis Text Line by texting the word HOME to 741741 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). In case of immediate danger, please seek emergency help.
Sarah J. Robinson is the author of the upcoming book, I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die: Finding Hope in the Darkness of Depression. She writes and speaks on faith and mental health, helping readers fight for wholeness and cultivate joy despite mental illness. Sarah lives in Nashville with her husband. Find her online at sarahjrobinson.com or on Twitter and Instagram as @sarahjrbnsn.