The Importance of Conversations About Mental Health

“A silent epidemic.” “The great unspoken health issue of our time.” “An invisible illness.” “A hidden crisis.” From the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerald to New York Times Magazine, the issue of mental health and its impact on human lives is getting lots of attention — and it’s well-deserved. 

A mental illness is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder and can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment. In 2016, there were an estimated 44.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with a mental illness, and up to one in five children living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental-health concern in any given year. Yet, nearly 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the children who need services won’t get them. Why?

That has to stop. 

When not feeling well physically, we don’t delay our need for medical treatment or advice. So when we are not feeling well emotionally, or our children may not be feeling their emotional best, why is the decision to seek assistance less than expeditious? 

It was over a casual lunch recently that a colleague of mine shared a story of her teenaged son who was having a difficult time managing anxiety related to school. He has friends and gets good grades, but anxiety was keeping him from feeling right. It got to the point where my colleague and her spouse realized it was time to seek help from of a professional. The problem was not ‘just going away.’

Her son immediately objected. Why? He was worried that other people would think he was weak if they found out he was seeing a therapist. He didn’t want to believe that asking for help is actually a sign of strength. It took some parental persuasion, but he agreed to talk with a therapist — an objective professional who isn’t a family member — and it helped right away. The young man learned more about what he was feeling and why, which has made him more confident and at ease. The impact of working with a therapist has been a game-changer. 

So, how do we collectively build a supportive community where young people feel comfortable having open and honest conversations about their emotional well-being? In times of crisis, many turn to trusted adults in their communities, perhaps a teacher or a relative, before they turn to mental-health professionals. When trusted adults and caregivers are equipped with the right information, they make it easier to seek and find help. There are things we all can do:

  • Educate ourselves and our communities. Invite local mental-health experts — CHD will happily visit — to speak at a school group, a parent meeting, your congregation, or any community gathering.
  • Ask your children, your students, the young people in your life, “how are you?” and then really listen to their response. If you’re sensing something might not be right, trust your instincts and probe. Ask again. 
  • Set a positive example. Take care of yourself and make your own emotional fitness a priority in your life. 
  • Be inclusive. Mental health does not discriminate; it can affect all of us.

The sooner we de-stigmatize mental health, the sooner more who need help will seek and find it. Let’s continue to have an open conversation about emotional wellness of our young people, as well as the adults in our lives. As a society, let’s start a conversation and keep the conversation going. I’ll start. “How are you?” I really want to know.