Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues Through Storytelling
Storytelling is a powerful way of destigmatizing mental health concerns in the workplace. If one admits to struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issues, they’re often concerned that co-workers and even family members will look at them differently.
One in 5 United States adults experiences mental illness each year, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet somehow, mental illness still has a stigma attached. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly contributed to a mental health crisis. Destigmatizing mental health is more important today than ever before.
“The stigma around talking about your mental health and your well-being—I do not get it. Why are we as a society not uplifting people to take control of their own brains and saying, ‘What do you need to feel better?’ I’ve been an open book with my struggle with anxiety and depression. I want people to feel empowered to take control of their lives and to check in with themselves” - Kristen Bell, actress, mental health advocate, and “Hers” Mental Health Ambassador.
Mental Health and Stigma Defined
Mental health is the ability of an individual to cope with stress, work productivity, and contribute to the community. Mental health is determined by a range of socioeconomic, biological, and environmental factors.
A stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Stigmas are often not fair or accurate.
To destigmatize mental health is to remove the shame or disgrace associated with it.
The Benefits of Storytelling to Help Destigmatize Mental Health
Storytelling has a profound impact not only on the listeners but also on the individual sharing the story. Storytelling also shapes workplace culture. Over time, storytelling will help destigmatize mental health in the workplace, at home, and throughout the world. Here are just a few of the many benefits of storytelling:
- Promotes a psychologically safe workplace
- Makes navigating the illness less isolating
- Encourages others to seek professional support such as therapy
- Fosters a sense of security among those with mental illnesses
- Creates a support system and shared compassion for one another
- Boosts those with low self-esteem to feel better about themselves
- Is therapeutic and has healing powers for both the sharers and listeners
- Develops a new understanding that others also suffer from a mental illness
- Builds an inclusive culture by including those with a mental illness in social group
How to Encourage Storytelling in the Workplace
It’s critical to support co-workers’ whole selves, including their mental well-being. Embrace the power of shared personal experiences through storytelling to help destigmatize mental health in the workplace. Here are several ways to encourage storytelling in the workplace:
Educate oneself. Knowledge is power. It’s critical to have foundational mental health knowledge so one feels well-informed and confident to talk about mental health. Destigmatizing mental health begins with educating oneself. This leads to being a proactive listener, to initiating open dialog with others, and to engaging in storytelling in a psychologically safe workplace. As personal stories are shared, listeners will understand how mental illness affects others’ lives.
Advocate for opportunities in the workplace to learn about common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Learning opportunities, such as self-directed trainings on various types of mental illnesses, can raise awareness, help destigmatize, encourage storytelling, and provide compassion and support.
Lead by example. Openness is contagious. When one speaks transparently about their mental health, they give courage to others to share their personal stories, too.
If one is comfortable talking about their personal struggles with conditions like anxiety and depression, it can have a tremendous impact on how mental health issues are perceived in the workplace. When one shares their mental health challenges in their daily lives and how they manage those challenges, they are letting others who are struggling with their mental health know they’re not alone. And it shows the workplace has a psychologically safe culture and it’s all right to share their own stories and ask for help.
Value psychological safety. Bonding facilitates self-healing. Mental health conditions may cause feelings of social isolation. Many have mental health struggles in their lives. Why not speak up about it? Sharing stories in a safe space encourages open communication.
Being open and honest about current struggles with trusted co-workers helps one realize they have a sincere, compassionate support system and they can find comfort. Sharing stories allows space for others to help, especially when difficult times arise, by providing options such as a mental health resource or the accommodations they need to succeed in the workplace.
Facilitate open communication around mental health. Communication is good for the soul. Encourage mental health discussions in appropriate settings and in ways that feel safe. Always respect personal boundaries. Talking openly about mental health conditions raises awareness and allows for these types of conversations to happen more frequently. Here are a few ideas for how to inspire storytelling:
- Share self-care tips on internal social media channels.
- Talk about mental health services and resources, such as taking a mental health day to see a therapist or relax or joining a support group. Reinforce taking advantage of these resources.
- SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) suggests creating a wellness champion network of passionate advocates who possess the communication and leadership skills to effectively motivate others.
Learn from each other. Talking openly helps remove stigmas. Mental health issues begin to normalize as more individuals are authentic and openly discuss mental illness and share their mental health stories, such as this one on depression. The mental health stigma dissipates as knowledge is shared and struggles are uncovered and understood. Telling stories allows individuals to be their authentic selves, find meaning in health challenges, and gain a different perspective, wisdom, and compassion for others and themselves.
“People tell stories not just to work out their own changing identities, but also to guide others who will follow them. They seek not to provide a map that can guide others–each must create his own–but rather to witness the experience of reconstructing one’s own map.” - Arthur Frank, medical sociologist
Individuals who don’t have mental health issues can still help destigmatize mental health through storytelling. Begin sharing strategies on how to protect one’s own mental health, such as good sleep habits and positive self-talk. And be an active listener to those sharing stories, as this lets those with mental health problems feel heard, understood, and supported. Set an example by using person-first language that emphasizes one’s humanity over their health challenges.
One can also educate others by explaining why certain language is offensive. A good way to do this is by storytelling. Keep in mind, sometimes the individual does not even know they are using offensive and harmful language. For example, when someone says, “You seem moody today. Are you bipolar?” they are using the word bipolar incorrectly and, whether intentional or not, as an insult. Mental health disorders should not be used as adjectives to describe anything other than their accurate medical definition.
Comments like, “I’m OCD about my office!” or “My child can be so crazy!” reflect a disregard for individuals who have serious mental health conditions. When one uses storytelling and compares a physical disease, such as cancer, to a mental health disease, like bipolar disorder, they are painting a picture and helping to show mental illness in a different light. One does not judge or think less of someone with cancer. Why should an individual who has bipolar disorder, a disease they didn’t willingly choose, be viewed any differently?
Be compassionate and offer support. Compassion and respect encourage inclusion. Offering support and showing compassion can happen in many ways to help destigmatize mental illness.
- Proactively check in with co-workers on a frequent basis, especially with remote workers. Be open and ask them how they’re feeling about and dealing with workplace stress, such as aggressive deadlines or process changes.
- Actively listen and stay aware of employees’ emotional well-being.
- Offer concrete ways to help employees feel supported and empower them to manage mental health in a positive and constructive way. Examples include:
- Ask for soft skills training.
- Propose reducing workload.
- Request a wellness day or PTO.
- Discuss a flexible work schedule.
By telling stories, employees are given equal opportunities to thrive in the workplace as their situations are understood and supported. This results in healthier, more engaged employees and high-performing teams.
“I’m not embarrassed about any of the time I need to take for myself, because that’s making me a better me.” - Kristen Bell, actress, mental health advocate, and Hers Mental Health Ambassador
How HSI Can Help?
Want to help with destigmatizing mental health in the workplace? HSI is a good mental health care resource for employee training. Incorporating companywide training into a comprehensive wellness program will encourage storytelling. Center learning and development around well-being, self-care, and mental health. This will keep mental well-being awareness levels and mental illness in the forefront and promote self-care habits.
To learn more about HSI’s mental health and well-being learning resources, please contact us.
Here is a sampling of our training videos that focus on mental health:
- Mood Disorders
- Anxiety Disorders
- Addiction Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Destigmatizing Mental Health
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Managing Mental Health Issues
- Navigating Your Own Mental Health
- Disclosing a Physical or Mental Health Condition
If you or someone you know or work with is struggling with their mental health, please visit the Center for Workplace Mental Health for resources and assistance. Or reach out about Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offering the opportunity to confidentially speak with licensed mental health professionals. If someone is having suicidal thoughts call 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.