Speaking openly about mental health isn’t brave.
It’s normal. It’s healthy. It’s responsible.
Talking about stuff in your brain is no different than talking about stuff going on with any other body part. Talking about improving your mental health and fitness is no different than talking about improving your physical health and fitness. Swapping techniques on how to do difficult exercises is the same whether it’s a CBT exercise or a crossfit WOD. It’s all about health.
Speaking about mental health isn’t brave. It’s the stuff happening in your brain. Your brain is an organ. It’s a fact. It’s happening. Big deal. It’s nothing special to talk about. People like me who spend all of their time talking about mental health are really just the mental health equivalent of that sweaty guy at the gym in a tank-top that won’t stop talking about gainz. I don’t think anybody would tell that guy he’s so brave for speaking openly about his biceps.
So not only do I think it’s weird when people say that speaking openly about mental health or mental illness is brave, but I also think it’s stigmatizing. After several years of speaking openly about mental health issues, I would say that’s the only stigma I’ve encountered. It’s stigmatizing because you’re going up to somebody and telling them the thing they’re doing is risky and dangerous, that it’s not a normal thing to do. And that’s what stigma is all about — labeling something or somebody as separate and abnormal.
When somebody says something is brave, they’re reacting to their own fears and judgments. They think it’s scary and they dump that fear on you and expect you to carry it as well. Telling somebody that sharing a story is brave is like saying, “Wow, I wouldn’t have done something as dangerous as picking up that grenade and throwing it away. You could blow your hand-off and get shrapnel in your eye.”
At first, when I would hear people say that being open about mental health challenges was brave, I thought those people were just being silly — these stories aren’t grenades, they’re not dangerous to handle. They’re just stories about things that happened and things I do. It’s like narrating my grocery list for the week (lots of beans, lots of chocolate). But now I think of it in a slightly different way: now I’ve accepted that some of these stories might be grenades. They might not seem dangerous to me because I know how to handle them and have practiced handling them. But to others they could be dangerous. But that still doesn’t make it brave, it’s just responsible. There’s something dangerous lying around and I know how to pick it up and dispose of it, so I do. It’s a thing we can all do because we don’t want others to get hurt by that grenade. We could run away from it, but somebody else might just stumble on it and not be as fast or as experienced as us. So throwing it out of the way is something we do, because we can. It’s common sense, not courage. Privileged, not risky. Maybe there’s danger involved, but there’s danger in everything, and that’s why we practice and we have the support of other grenade throwers, other people willing to speak up and practice grenade throwing alongside us (people like you).
If we want it to be normal to talk about mental health, we have to start treating it as normal. If we want to see less stigma around mental health, that starts with ourselves and making it normal in our lives.
If honesty about something so common is dangerous, we need to practice honesty about mental health more, so that we’re capable of handling the risk. If it’s truly dangerous, avoiding it will only make it more dangerous.
From what I’ve seen so far in the real world, professionally and personally, most people are super excited to have somebody around that can identify mental illness grenades lying nearby and throw them out of the way so they don’t explode in anybody’s face. I definitely prefer to be around people who can recognize something nasty and pick it up and throw it out of the way and create something more awesome in its place.
Please, go forth and do incredibly normal things like talking about the actions you take each day to maintain and improve your mental health.
Flex those biceps.
Writer: Mark Freeman