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The Difference a Conversation About Mental Health Can Make

Laura might have had an inkling that something was awry with her mother’s mental health, but at 12 years old, she didn’t have the knowledge or understanding of what it could be. The one thing she did know – or thought she knew – was that her mother’s behavior was her problem to bear. It wouldn’t be clear to Laura that this way of thinking would have larger implications on her own mental health until later in life (“No One Helped My Mentally Ill Mother, or Me,” New York Times, June 22, 2018).

Despite her mother’s strange demands and behaviors, Laura didn’t speak up. Nor did the adults in her life. When her mother’s rage surfaced in public, her friends’ parents, teachers and coaches – no one said anything.

“What could they have said?” Laura asks herself today. “The odds of initiating a constructive conversation with a shell-shocked adolescent or her defensive mother were miniscule.”

Was the lack of addressing her mother’s behavior a result of not knowing it was wrong? Or was it because no one wanted to step on a mother’s toes? Those are the questions that Laura continues to ask herself – questions that to this day remain unanswered.

“It pains me that people thought we were okay, and we weren’t. Or, they didn’t think we were okay, and opted not to speak up,” Laura admits. “And yet I don’t know what people could have done, except, perhaps, pay attention and offer an ear.”

We will never know exactly what kept the people in Laura’s life from speaking up when they witnessed her mother’s behavior. What we do know is that it is hard, and can often be awkward, to initiate conversation about mental health. But Laura’s childhood and story is just one example of why it is so necessary to do so.

Paying attention and offering an ear, as Laura puts it, are often the first steps in showing up to express support for our loved ones. When we know what to say and what to do, we can #BeTheDifference for those who may be living with mental health or substance use challenges.

Laura’s mother’s mental illness wasn’t diagnosed until she was 73 years old. Meanwhile, Laura developed her own mental health challenges: agoraphobia, anxiety, depression. Through years of treatment, Laura began to understand and unpack her mother’s mental illness.

Knowing what was glossed over in her own childhood, Laura now goes to high schools to talk about her experience with mental illness. She says it’s the kind of talk she wishes someone had given in her school when she was growing up. One phrase she makes sure to repeat in every high school visit? Talk to someone. You’re not alone.

Talking – it’s something we can and should all do. We want everyone to feel confident beginning a conversation about mental health, sustaining that conversation as well as be able to direct people to the help they may need – whether it’s professional or a simple non-judgmental listening ear. To learn how to provide this support to your loved ones, take a Mental Health First Aid course today.