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Leaders who talk openly about mental health and their own experiences can make a department safer for others to do the same. A white icon of two faces with conversation bubbles is embedded in a a light blue circle.

It’s easy to say that normalizing conversations about mental health is important, but imagine you’re the one who actually has to tell the boss that you have mental health concerns — most people cringe at the thought. Some may believe that it would be impossible to face their peers or return to normal duty after that conversation.

Guide: How to Talk to an Employee Who Shares a Mental Health Issue With You

But organizations where leaders talk openly about their own mental health and experiences have had success in creating work environments where employees feel empowered and confident enough to share their own experiences. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky in her book Trauma Stewardship states, “When we acknowledge our own fear, we have the opportunity to deepen our compassion not only for ourselves but also for every being that has ever been afraid.” To admit to a mental illness takes courage, and leaders that have the courage to share their own struggles help provide “safety” to their teams to do the same.

If those in the first responder community do not talk to one another and normalize conversations around mental health, the likelihood that a colleague will open up when they are struggling with something is low. They may instead ignore and push down thoughts and feelings, which can cause those thoughts and feelings to manifest in other ways. By not talking about mental health, the stigma associated with it is only perpetuated.

However, talking about mental health at work can result in a number of benefits. This can include increasing trust between coworkers, providing a safe space for those who are experiencing mental health symptoms, and creating a supportive, positive, and open culture where employees feel like they can bring their full selves to work.

How to normalize the conversation

So, what are some ways to normalize the mental health conversation? Here are a few suggestions:

Talk openly about mental health

In conversations make it clear that mental health is just as important as physical health. One of the best ways to reduce stigma around mental health is to treat it with the same level of importance as physical health, and make it known to your department that you feel that way. Just as it is viewed as normal to talk about physical ailments and seeing a doctor if one if physically ill or injured, one should be able to share if they are seeing a mental health provider. Talking about seeing a therapist due to feelings of depression, anxiety, sleep disruption, etc., normalizes the mental health conversation in a similar way.

By being in a leadership role, you have incredible power to create change in your department. Find others in your department who are also in leadership roles who could be allies in normalizing these conversations. When having conversations about mental health and wellness, speak confidently and directly. Showing hesitation when talking about mental health only adds to the notion that it is a taboo topic.

Educate yourself and others

As a leader, you often go to lengths to make sure you are educated about a particular policy, procedure, or training you are discussing or leading within your department. The same should hold true for the topic of mental health. Do your research about mental health and wellness, especially within the first responder community, and share that information with others. There are many different mental symptoms, each with unique behaviors that can impact work performance and relationships with others. Sharing information eliminates misconceptions that contribute to stigma.

Be conscious of language

Mental health conditions are often used negatively as adjectives, which is problematic. Be conscious of the words you use to describe people and behaviors that you perceive as different. For example, avoid the use of the words like “crazy,” “idiot,” “psycho/psychotic,” “mental,” or “off their rocker.” Stepping in to discourage such language when it is used to describe someone’s behavior is important. This helps send the message that describing individuals who may not be well-liked or are viewed as “different” using derogatory words to imply a mental health problem will not be tolerated. When such terms are used in jest it only perpetuates a negative stereotype and stigma.

Consider other resources

For example, there may be an opportunity for your HR department to share the mental health resources your department may offer, and a policy around mental health days, wellness breaks, or other support they can provide at work. See if language around mental health can be included in orientation materials and other initial training, such as including mental health leave policies.

Be bold

Make a statement or publicly share information about the department’s mental health support and resources.

Don’t overthink it

Remember, in having these conversations there is no need to try and fix or solve the difficulty an employee may be having. Rather, it is showing the willingness to simply be OK with the conversation and to just be there for them and to listen. It is always good to encourage others, and be willing to share that there is no shame in reaching out for help. Many first responders who have faced a mental health challenge at some point have gone on to have long and successful careers. It truly is OK to not be OK.

A white icon of a briefcase is embedded in a light blue circle.Your next step

This resource can help department leaders navigate the human resources questions and organizational steps to transforming a workplace culture.

View the HR Q&A in the Creating a Healthy Workplace Culture section