Here in Canada, January 24 marks Bell Let’s Talk Day: one of the biggest campaigns for mental health awareness in the country. Today is all about reducing stigma and promoting open discussion about mental health. But are we doing enough?
This might qualify as what the kids are calling a “hot take,” but here goes: the way we talk about mental health needs to change if we’re ever going to really destigmatize mental health concerns. Research shows that just boosting mental health literacy, while important, isn't enough on its own to improve social tolerance of mental health disturbances.
Don’t get me wrong — things are much better than they used to be. But even now, public conversations about mental health (especially in the workplace) tend to be founded on a limited and incomplete understanding of this complex topic. And sometimes, that might be doing more harm than good.
Below, I explain why — and what needs to change for us to really move the needle.
Until next time, Katie1 and the talkative team @ TDL
1. Long-time readers might remember me, but let me quickly re-introduce myself! I used to be the Lead Editor here at TDL, before stepping away last fall to pursue my Master’s degree. I’m temporarily back to fill in for my wonderful colleague Sarah, who’s off on leave. Feel free to say hi!
+ Mental health isn’t always comfortable (and that’s okay). In 2024, there's a lot more public conversation about mental health than there used to be. But these conversations are often heavily sanitized. Think about depression, for example. Our public discourse is pretty sympathetic to depressed people whose main symptom is feeling sad a lot of the time. But what about when depression causes people to be irritable? When it gives them terrible brain fog? When it makes it hard just to take a shower or eat breakfast? In my experience, there’s less willingness to show up for these people in the same way — presumably because these forms of mental health disturbance tend to be more disruptive and less easily comprehensible to others.
+ Behavioral interventions are useful — but they’re not perfect. Things like self-tracking and mindfulness are great, evidence-based tools that can help improve mental health outcomes (see our “Field Notes” section below). But that doesn’t mean they work for everybody, or that they can “cure” someone’s problems entirely. In fact, an over-reliance on self-tracking (for example) can actually make it harder to tune into how we’re feeling.
+ Mental health is a collective problem. Mental health is often framed as a product of our individual decisions and habits. But a lot of the time, systemic factors play a much bigger role. We need to talk more about the social determinants of health — things like poverty, discrimination, environmental hazards, and much more. (Genetic and biological factors play a big role too, and these are also outside of individual control.)
📱 FIELD NOTES: Tracking Our Progress
A holistic approach to mental health can involve all kinds of tools. Behavioral interventions can be one piece of that puzzle.
Over the years, the TDL team has done a lot of work involving mental health tracking tools. Among many other amazing projects, we played a key role in designing Wellness Together Canada, a federally funded mental wellness and substance use platform, along with its companion app PocketWell.
Research shows that tracking tools can help us understand what we’re feeling and notice patterns that we might otherwise miss. This kind of introspection is a skill that takes some practice — and when you’re new to mood-tracking and journaling, it’s not always easy to tune into what’s going on beneath the surface. In order to navigate our emotions effectively, we first need to learn how to identify and label them. Wellness Together Canada gives users the tools to do just that.
The fact of the matter is that mental health issues can be uncomfortable. They can be inconvenient, illogical, and incomprehensible. Most of the time, they're not something that’s easily “fixed.” But meaningfully fighting stigma means extending empathy and patience to everybody, even when it’s not easy. Here’s a few strategies for doing just that.
+ Practice sitting with discomfort. When something makes us uncomfortable, many of us instinctively become avoidant or defensive (thanks, cognitive dissonance). That shuts down productive conversations about mental health pretty fast. But research shows that when we intentionally work through discomfort, it helps us grow as people.
+ Focus on empathy. If your goal is to be a better "mental health ally," one of the most valuable things you can do is just listen. Empathetic listening — simply attending to and validating somebody’s experiences, without necessarily trying to force a solution — can be more impactful than you may realize.
In daily life, we often ask each other how we’re doing without really listening to the answer. Think about how you can help create spaces for people in your life to share how they’re feeling without fear of judgment.
+ Advocate for wider change. Whether this means pushing your employer for better mental health benefits or writing your elected officials about addressing systemic concerns, your voice matters.
Less than half of employees surveyed by Gallup reported that their workplace offered easily accessible mental health supports. (Source: Gallup)
The Fundamental Attribution Error
We tend to attribute our own failures to factors outside of ourselves: “I didn’t do a great job at work today, but it’s just because I didn’t sleep well.” But when it comes to other people, we jump to internal explanations: “My coworker did a bad job because they’re lazy.” Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error. You never know what might be going on in someone’s life that’s affecting their behavior; for all you know, they could be struggling with their mental health. Learn more on our website.
What’s new at TDL
TDL is hiring! We have open roles at our Montreal office and beyond. Of note: we’re currently looking to fill some spots on our Consulting and Design team to help out with exciting projects in Mexico. Visit our careers portal to learn more.
TDL is looking for creative minds to join our writing team. As one of the largest behavioral science publications, we’re on a mission to serve up accessible and engaging content. If you’re a wordsmith with a passion for analyzing human behavior, we’d love to hear from you! Find the writer application on our careers portal.
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