Mental health concerns can be a challenging topic to talk about. There is so much stigma around mental health that bringing up the topic can make a room go silent, can lead to whispers between people well after the conversation took place, and unfortunately, it is all too often assumed that experiencing mental health challenges is equivalent to being “crazy.”
There are a lot of coaches, parents, athletes, and others in the sports world who sincerely want to help support those who may be experiencing mental health issues. But because of the stigma around mental health concerns and due to limited knowledge about how to help, many times, we are afraid to step up out of fear that we might be doing or saying something wrong.
Here are some simple strategies that can be utilized that might help the conversation go more smoothly when you reach out to help someone.
1 Use Person-First Language: This is first on the list because it is such an easy way to make a difference in showing respect and compassion for another person. It is a matter of changing your word choices, and yet can communicate a much more supportive message. Too often we label people as their mental health issue. Calling someone “depressed”, “psychotic”, “schizophrenic”, “anxious” or any other label turns that person into the challenge they are experiencing. But mental health issues are experiences, they do not define the person. It is far better to use a personal pronoun first and then follow with what that person is experiencing. Check out the “Say This, Not That” table below with some suggestions.
One note about person-first language – even though changing the words you use might seem “simple,” it can actually take a great deal of effort to change our speech patterns. But the more you try, the better you will get at it. If you make a mistake and use a label, you can correct yourself or try again in future conversations to use wording that shows how much you care.
*For more examples of person-first language, visit https://odr.dc.gov/page/people-first-language
2 Understand that Mental Health Issues are an Experience: Using person-first language communicates that the person is not defined by the mental health issue they are experiencing. Now, you need to remind yourself of that knowledge, as well. Experiencing a mental health issue does not ever mean a person is crazy and it is important to remember that recovery from any mental health issue is possible. When we recognize within ourselves that the person is separate from the illness or disorder, we are more likely to show that through both our words and actions. After all, we should conceptualize mental illness in similar ways to how we conceptualize physical ailments. We would never tell someone who has a broken arm, “You are broken,” as though the injury is now their permanent defining trait. If we know that recovery from mental health issues is possible, we are more likely to bring hope to others experiencing them.
3 Break the Silence: A third tip regarding those conversations about mental health concerns is to START THEM! We know it can be awkward at first since there is stigma around mental health. However, the more we talk about it, the more those conversations become part of the norm. If our youth athletes hear parents talking about it, it will not make them depressed too, it will allow them to see that conversations about depression are ok to have as an example. We will save lives if we make it okay to talk about mental health concerns before they become so severe that they lead to suicidal thought or harmful behaviors. After all, if we saw someone with a broken arm who needed a doctor, we most likely wouln’t have any problem asking them some questions about their injury to make sure we got them connected with the professional medical help they needed. Let’s make it the same for mental health issues – START the CONVERSATION! You can do this – if you help just one person, you’ve made a huge difference!
Margaret Domka is a Co-founder and the Executive Director of the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport. She is also carrying out mental health and sport research at Clemson University. Margaret is a Mental Health First Aid certified instructor and holds the IOC Certificate on Mental Health in Elite Sport. She is a former FIFA Women's World Cup referee and served on the USA panel of FIFA referees for 10 years.