How to be a mental health ally at work

We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to accepting and supporting people with mental health issues at work. While more than one in seven of us are likely to experience a mental health problem in our working lives, 38% of workers say they wouldn’t talk openly about suffering from a mental illness for fear of being judged.

But there’s a growing movement to challenge this and pave the way for more frank conversations and compassionate support. If you’d like to play your part in improving attitudes to mental illness in your workplace, here are some ideas about how to go about it.

Challenge your own stereotypes and stigma

Stigma against mental illness is pervasive in society and few of us are immune. So, for a first step, reflect on your own assumptions and preconceptions to help ensure you don’t unintentionally stigmatise anyone.

“You may not mean to contribute to the stigma, but even an unintentional stigma is hurtful,” says Katherine Ponte, a Yale lecturer in psychiatry and founder of mental health recovery group ForLikeMinds. She urges allies to consider sharing any of their own experience with mental health challenges, to put themselves on an equal footing with the people they are trying to support.

Strike the right approach

Starting a conversation with someone who may be in distress is a delicate matter. Experts suggest the tone you want to strike is gentle and genuine, but never overbearing.

“A lot of people with mental illnesses can feel like they don’t matter or that they are a burden to others,” mental health activist Dior Vargas says. Even if someone initially says they’re fine, you can let them know there’s always an opportunity to talk when they feel like it.

Use empathy and supportive language

So how can you be supportive when someone does open up? Mental health non-profit the Jefferson Center says it’s key to show empathy by “trying to put yourself in their position and respond in the way that you would want someone to respond to you if you were sharing something difficult and private”.

As well as being careful with your language when talking to people facing mental health challenges, you can show that you’re an ally by avoiding stigmatising terms in general conversation, the centre suggests. “Calling someone ‘insane’ makes light of mental illness and devalues the experiences of people who have lived with mental illnesses,” they warn.

Promote mental health education

Yale psychiatry lecturer Katharine Ponte says running events that feature “intimate, lived experiences and personal accounts” are among the best ways of educating people about mental health issues, as “they can humanize challenges and foster empathy.”

You can also ask your company to train people as mental health first aiders and to advertise the support they can offer widely across the company, so everyone knows there are people who can help when they need them. Courses such as those run by MHFA England are widely used.

Know what to do in a crisis 

“Mental health can get really, really tough sometimes,” warns Beckett Frith from the charity Mental Health at Work. Not every issue can be resolved with a supportive conversation – you may have a colleague who has a psychotic episode or suicidal feelings.

Frith suggests encouraging your organisation to draw up a plan for such a crisis, with details of when it might be necessary to call emergency services, how to support your colleague afterwards and how to manage a suitable return to work.

“When it comes to the complicated world of mental health, it’s important to be ready for anything,” he says.