How to Be a Mental Health Ally


You will likely experience a mental health challenge at some point in your life. Recognizing this possibility should motivate you to be a workplace ally for mental health, to treat your colleagues dealing with mental health issues with the empathy you would want under similar circumstances.

Yet the stigma and lack of information about mental health block the way in many workplaces. The myth that people with mental health conditions cannot make meaningful contributions leads to conscious and unconscious bias. We must work together to eradicate the stigma and its devastating impacts. We may struggle with mental health, but we can recover. We can thrive at home and work, and we can help make this possible for each other by being allies, collaborating to create a supportive workplace for all.

To be a mental health ally at work is to help those struggling with mental health issues feel valued and needed. This can have positive long-term benefits, including increased employee engagement, productivity, and loyalty. Strengthening and deepening relationships between colleagues can also benefit the broader employee community. When we’re supported, we’re also often eager to support others, creating a virtuous self-reinforcing cycle.

Some of the most effective ways you can be a mental health ally are to talk one on one with colleagues who are struggling, use supportive language, educate yourself and colleagues about mental health, encourage group engagement, and create policies that help employees who need it.

Talking to a Colleague One on One

Knowing when and how to engage with someone who may be struggling with their mental health can be difficult. Talking about mental illness isn’t easy, particularly at work and particularly for people with a mental health condition. You don’t want to jump to conclusions about someone or seem judgmental. You don’t want to offend a colleague. And you want to respect professional and personal boundaries. It may be most challenging to speak to people who have a serious mental illness, as they are often the most stigmatized, making them extremely reluctant to talk about the issue.

Before talking to someone, listen and watch for signs that they are struggling, as well as for their potential sensitivities. For example, colleagues with serious and chronic issues may disclose their feelings but not their diagnosis. They may also experience self-stigma, or the internalization of the stigma, which can amplify the impact of others’ negative beliefs. Further, people with mental illness may experience an anticipated stigma, or the belief that they will experience prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. For these reasons, they often have heightened sensitivity to the stigma and rejection.

Keep in mind the following strategies and considerations for your conversation.

Prepare yourself.

Reflecting on and correcting your own implicit bias around mental health will help you be an ally to your colleagues. You may not mean to contribute to the stigma, but even an unintentional stigma is hurtful. Think about any assumptions or preconceptions you may have about mental health conditions and the people who deal with them. Then, discard them.

Be open and approachable with your colleague and consider sharing your own vulnerability or experience with mental health challenges. If you have this experience directly or through other relationships, talking about it to open a dialogue can be very powerful, putting you and the other person on more equal footing and showing that you are empathic and understanding.

Being an ally requires patience, gentle persistence, and creativity. Don’t be frustrated or discouraged if your initial efforts to comfort a colleague are unsuccessful. The goal of any conversation should be to help your coworker talk about their struggles, support them by asking whether and how you can help, and gently remind them of any benefits or resources your company or health-care plan provides.

Find a good time.

If you notice a significant change in a colleague’s mood or behavior, you may want to initiate a conversation. Watch for impaired concentration, missed deadlines, reduction in work quality, less communication, “worried” appearance, tardiness, and repeated unexplained absences.

You might be inclined to ignore this behavior as a private matter or as something for your manager or HR to address. But if you’re close with the person, you might be in the best position to identify an issue and connect with your colleague by reaching out in a friendly and caring way. Timing is important; try to pick a “good day” when your colleague seems approachable or relaxed.

Some people show no outward signs of struggle or work concerns, such as those who suffer from high-functioning anxiety. You can’t always assume that someone is not struggling merely based on their appearance or work performance. Creating a workplace culture where colleagues demonstrate understanding and empathy will help people feel more comfortable reaching out or seeking support when needed. HR and managers should make resources, including a mental health handbook, available and easily accessible to all.

Start gently.

Talking about mental health should be as normal as possible. Simply asking, “How are you feeling today?” or “How was your weekend?” or “How’s that assignment going?” can create space for a mental health discussion. Of course, you’ll want to strike an open, genuine, and empathic tone. A casual, nonconfrontational approach can facilitate a more open dialogue.

Be prepared that your colleague may be defensive or try to hide their challenges. They may fear being stigmatized, a topic of office gossip. So don’t insist that your colleague talk with you. Instead, gently nudge them by telling them you’re available to listen if and when they want to speak.

Validate the person’s performance; they may experience strong self-doubt, which can be paralyzing. They may also experience imposter syndrome or feel guilty for being a “weak link” or not “keeping up” with the team. Remind them of how they were able to overcome challenging tasks in the past, reassuring them that things will be OK, and making them feel valued and needed. You can also help brainstorm other ways to reduce their workload if that is negatively contributing to their mental health.

Use the right approach.

Try reaching out in different ways. Starting with a face-to-face discussion may not be ideal, as people with mental health challenges may feel ashamed or embarrassed. Reaching out with a call or text message may be more effective. If you talk in person, consider whether a spot away from the office would provide more privacy. Begin the conversation by assuring that what you discuss will be kept private and confidential — and, of course, honor what you say.

After the initial discussion, continue the conversation if the person is willing to, especially if they have shared sensitive information. Many people with mental illness fear being disliked, abandoned, or rejected once others learn of their illness. So continue to have regular conversations while gently checking in. Sometimes people are more willing to talk about stressors than a mental health challenge, even if the stressor led to their challenges. For example, you can ask, “How are the kids adjusting to school?” instead of, “Are you still stressed about your kids?”

Using Supportive Language

When talking to a colleague who is or may be struggling with their mental health, always be mindful of what you’re saying and how you say it. The following are a few samples of what to say and not say. Every person has their own trigger points or vulnerabilities, so stay thoughtful and considerate.

Be sensitive

Don’t say: “I have to talk to you about your attitude [behavior, mood].”
Say: “You don’t seem like yourself lately. Would you like to talk about it? I’ll understand if you don’t want to.”

Don’t say: “You seem to be falling behind on your work. Why can’t you keep up?”
Say: “I know that work can sometimes be challenging. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Don’t say: “I don’t believe you are struggling; you’re so strong. You’ll get over this.”
Say: “I suffer from ____ ; I’ve had a really hard time in the past when _____. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but it seems hard.”

Don’t say: “Cheer up.” Never use platitudes.
Say: “I hope you feel a little better tomorrow.”

If you’re a manager talking to someone who may benefit from a work break:

Don’t say: “I think you need to have some time off.”
Say: “You’re a valuable member of our team. We need you, but you can take time off if it would help. We can give you part-time work, you can work from home, and you can stay connected with your colleagues.” Of course, adapt this language to whatever your company policies allow.

Avoid stigma

Don’t say: “You are bipolar.”
Say: “You are a person with bipolar disorder.” Always use person-first language — you would never say “You are cancer.”

Don’t say: “I understand what you’re going through” unless you have mental illness. Even if you do, be sensitive, as each person experiences mental illness differently.
Say: “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I would like to help you. Is there any way that I can?”

Encourage

Don’t say: “You don’t seem to be getting better.”
Say: “Mental illness can be managed and treated; sometimes it just takes finding the right care team and plan. I will be here to support you. You can count on me.”

Don’t say: “Maybe you should try _____ and ______.” Unsolicited advice is usually not welcomed.
Say: “I heard ____ can be helpful or has helped me in the past. Would you like to look into it together?”

Don’t say: “You’ll figure this out. You don’t need any help. You’re not weak.”
Say: “I think it’s brave that you recognize that you are struggling and willing to get help.”

Cooperate

Don’t say: “You have to see a doctor.”
Say: “I wonder if a doctor might be able to help you. Our mental health handbook provides referrals, or you can reach out to your insurance company for help. Or maybe a therapist could be useful to you.”

Don’t say: “You need to focus on getting better.”
Say: “We can get through this together. We are here for you.”

Educating Employees About Mental Health

Education on mental health issues is the foundation for helping people be better allies. If you’re a leader, encouraging or instituting better education at your company is a big-picture way you can be a mental health ally. There are two broad types of educational programs: personal accounts in an intimate gathering or auditorium environment and informational events in a workshop or classroom format.

Personal accounts

Events that feature intimate, lived experiences and personal accounts are often the most effective, as they can humanize challenges and foster empathy. Leaders, in particular, can share their experiences with mental health, which can also impact corporate culture and policy. Employees can share their stories, which often have the greatest impact since they’re more likely to be more relatable to other employees. The speakers at these events don’t have to be folks on staff but people who have experience leading these kinds of discussions.

Workshops and classes

Informational events can provide useful background knowledge to all employees. Several organizations offer workplace training, the most popular being the Mental Health First Aid Course offered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. Mental health nonprofits such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness – New York City (where I am on the board) also provide training.

Another helpful employee resource is a mental health handbook that covers mental health basics, benefits information, and a list of vetted health-care providers. Be sure to refer employees to reputable sources, such as NAMI or Mayo Clinic, for additional information.

Engaging Employee Groups

Peer-to-peer contact can benefit those employees who struggle with loneliness and isolation. Employee resource groups (ERGs) can provide a forum for those impacted by, living with, or supporting someone with mental illness and identify opportunities to address any workplace issues. All employees should be welcome to join, but privacy for members should be preserved. Managers should promote and participate in these groups where relevant to help normalize these issues.

In addition to ERGs, you can model good behavior in groups by openly and publicly talking about mental health, sharing your own challenges, lobbying for good mental health for all employees at all levels, and supporting mental health activities, initiatives, and events.

Group self-care activities in the workplace promote peer-to-peer engagement. Popular activities include exercise and fitness classes, healthy meals, meditation, and mindfulness programs. These experiences also foster more in-person conversations, which can facilitate discussions about mental health. Sometimes people with mental health challenges find it comforting to do things with colleagues that aren’t directly focused on mental health; many fear the loss of such social connections due to their issues. Extracurricular activities organized around a shared interest or affinity can create a space in which to create connections with other employees that facilitate engagement. These may include employee involvement in DEI initiatives and discussion groups or community service programs. Sponsoring or encouraging participation in mental health nonprofit events such as fundraising walks also helps raise awareness and invites open employee discussion while benefiting programs.

Supporting Mental Health with Company Policies

Deploy a supportive mental health policy.

Implementing and maintaining a strong policy against stigma and promoting mental health creates a supportive work environment and culture. Provide all employees with a clear overview of the mental health benefits your company offers. Communicate that any stigma associated with mental health will be treated in the same manner as other forms of discrimination, and encourage managers and employees to speak up against it. Also encourage employees to confront colleagues that espouse any and all stigma, whether or not intentional, and report such conduct to supervisors. Your company’s mental health policy can include a transparent company commitment to best practices for addressing mental health issues. Employees should have clearly identified and available resources to report concerns and an uncomplicated complaint or feedback process that provides anonymity.

If you’re in management, you can create a mental health director position to develop, implement, and enforce your company’s mental health policy. A workplace mental health committee comprising a diverse group of stakeholders, especially employees living with mental illness, can help shape, implement, and maintain this policy.

Offer office accommodations.

Allies and leaders should lobby for and support office accommodations that can benefit all employees by helping prevent mental health challenges and mitigating workplace stressors that can worsen mental health. Some easy and low-cost examples of accommodations from the American Disabilities Act include offering late starts (many psychiatric medications can be sedating), breaks to attend medical appointments, flextime, quiet workspaces, office psychiatric service dogs (or emotional support animals), remote work, and part-time work. Encourage all employees to discuss accommodations for their team and suggestions for how best to incorporate them.

Managers should consider offering these accommodations proactively to employees in need. Assure employees that they will not experience repercussions if they ask for accommodations, and that if they disclose a mental illness, it will be kept strictly confidential. Telling an employee that an illness will be “kept off the record” can be comforting. Employees with mental illnesses are entitled to reasonable accommodations under the law, but to benefit they must disclose their condition. Managers should keep in mind that many think the risks of disclosure far exceed the benefits.

Increase access to care.

Offer access to good mental health care benefits, including a comprehensive package that accords physical and mental health parity. It should include coverage for a wide range of mental health services and medications. Offer generous short-term and long-term medical leave policies with clearly stipulated durations and possibilities for extensions. Leave policy should not require disclosure of specific conditions. Another beneficial measure is on-call therapy assistance (as mental health crises often occur outside the workplace). General wellness programs should also be available to all employees to ensure a positive impact on mental health. Ensure that employees are aware of these benefits through information sessions and company communication channels.

Finally, anonymous online peer-to-peer support communities that preserve confidentiality can be helpful. Many companies use mental health apps to support employees, but their effectiveness may be questionable. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), many apps lack evidence of their effectiveness; in addition, they may not be secure, lack adequate privacy controls, or may sell user data without appropriate disclosure or authorization. The APA has developed an evaluation model to assess associated risks and rate mental health apps. Employers should carefully evaluate mental health apps for these risks and their potential effectiveness before promoting them to employees.

. . .

People with mental health challenges, no matter the severity, can thrive in the workplace and be valuable team members. Allies play an important role by helping to provide the empathy and compassion they need to overcome key challenges. Our collective will, empathy, and compassion can break down the formidable barriers of stigma. Workplace mental health initiatives can and do help. In the end, what matters most is bringing our shared humanity into the workplace.


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