May is Mental Health Awareness Month: We need to talk about HOW we talk about mental health

So May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and y’all know how I feel about these arbitrary “pay attention to it now, forget it tomorrow” events. HOWEVER.

Open, direct conversations about mental and emotional health are important. They’re necessary. But if all these “we need to talk about mental health” campaigns don’t also focus on *HOW* we talk about mental health, then nothing is going to change.

Not being happy doesn’t mean you have “mental health problems.”

Holding up happiness as our baseline measure of good health is part of the problem. Humans have a whole range of emotions, and just because some of them are messy and painful doesn’t make them wrong. You can be sad and healthy. You can be grieving and still not have a “problem” with your mental health. 

When we’re talking about the importance of mental health, how do we decide what’s an acceptable emotion? 

Stressful work environment? Don’t let it get to you! 

The ability to perform your job well, even under great duress, is a measurement we use for people in all sorts of fields, including healthcare workers, teachers, civic employees, and just about everyone. Insisting that people with “good” mental health are unaffected by stressful situations adds more pressure to an already challenging situation.

That stiff upper lip, remain calm at all times, put your troubles behind you mindset helps to create epidemics of substance use, depression, anxiety, and yes – encourages people to push themselves beyond their limits. 

Needing support inside stressful environments is a sign of health, not weakness. 

“Have you tried talking to someone?”

The clinical-medical model sees happiness and resilience as the gold standards of health. Are you working hard at being happy? Have you written in your gratitude journal? Because we’ve treated grief as a problem to be solved, most therapists think their role is to help you get out of grief faster, returning you to happiness. In the current medical model, you have six weeks after the death of someone you love to return to “normal.” Anything short of normal is a problem.

And if you’re “still sad” after 1 year? The American Psychiatric Association now diagnoses that as Prolonged Grief Disorder. Before you comment that PGD will help more people get treatment: Yes, OF COURSE people deserve support in their grief. Even within grief itself, some people do need extra help to get through particularly hard times. Just because grief is normal doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck. Be sure to listen to the PGD episode of my podcast for all the reasons why “access to therapy” isn’t a valid argument for PGD.  

And it’s not just grief – it’s everything. Depression, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, stress – they’re all interpreted as signs you’re not ok. The role of the doctor or therapist is to get you out of that stuff as soon as possible. Most people think this is the best way to support a friend going through a tough time, too. 

Whether you’re a medical professional or you’re trying to support a friend, talking people out of their feelings is no longer a viable option. Cheering people up hasn’t worked (and we’ve been trying that for decades!). It turns out that validating and acknowledging someone’s experience is much more helpful. Let people be sad

Times are tough, but you’re tougher! #StayStrong

This idea that your mental health is an individual problem, with any deviation from happiness pointing to your own failure to be resilient, rise above, and return to “normal” is the actual problem with mental health.

Helping people be “more resilient” doesn’t address the systemic social issues that cause them to need more resilience. We praise people for being strong without questioning the circumstances that demand that strength (think racism, classism, access to healthcare, ableism and access, acts of violence, global inequities, and other system-failures). 

When the systems are broken, struggling to maintain health is hardly the fault of the individual. 

This idea that your mental health is an individual problem, with any deviation from happiness pointing to your own failure to be resilient, rise above, and return to 'normal' is the actual problem with mental health. Click To Tweet

And what do we mean by “be strong” anyway? We mean that, no matter what happened, you’ve come back better, stronger, wiser than before. This terrible thing did not affect you. You’re happy. And we’re right back to where we started: only happiness is the true measure of mental health. 

If we just keep trying to cheer people up, or put a time limit on their emotions, no one’s mental health will improve. If we insist on resilience and the power of positive thinking, we’re missing something essential: talking someone out of their pain isn’t going to help them feel better, it’s just going to make them feel misunderstood. And that’s going to make them stop talking. No #mentalhealthawareness campaigns are going to make people talk if all they ever hear is “cheer up!” 

So yes, let’s focus on mental health. PLEASE. And let’s ground that conversation in the understanding that our habitual ways of responding to human emotion don’t serve us – not in medicine, not in therapy, and not in life. There is no true mental health without welcoming in the whole range of human emotion, beyond the happy, smiling, triumphant parts. 

For more on our historical patterns of grief avoidance and how that impacts modern mental health, check out It’s OK that You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand

To learn better ways of tending your own mental health, start here