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Bell Let’s Talk Day: Should I share a mental health story?

January 28, 2020
By Melanie-Anne Atkins

Photo: Charday Penn/Getty Images

Bell Let’s Talk Day has become an opportunity for individuals to share their personal mental health stories, and for organizations to raise awareness about mental health and mental illness.

As an anti-stigma advocate, storyteller and researcher, I am inspired by the people who share their personal stories, and by those who call on corporations like Bell to do more for people living with mental illness.

My PhD research investigated why and how youth living with mental illness decide to share their personal mental health story to teach about mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness. For some, a mental health story represents a day in the life of a person who lives with a mental illness. For others, a mental health story is a moment in time when an individual struggled with their mental health.

This Bell Let’s Talk Day, you might be part of an organization, business or community that is considering creating space for people to share their personal mental health stories. When done well, it has the potential to be a community-building experience that promotes mental health awareness in your milieu. If this is your goal, here are some questions for you to ask — and answer — before you get started.

Decreasing stigma

Sharing a mental health story can be a powerful way to decrease the stigma of mental illness, but it’s not the only way.

Spend some time with the leadership in your organization exploring and agreeing on why sharing mental health stories is the right approach now. Consult with people who have expertise in best practices for mental health education through story sharing and personal experience and who advocate for employee rights, including the right to privacy.

Seek feedback on how you can ask for contributions from storytellers without anyone feeling compelled to participate.

Lean into difficult conversations about any potential impacts on the storyteller, and articulate how the organization will avoid discriminating against people who agree to share their mental health story.

How will you honour the storyteller?

When you and the storyteller freely agree to share their mental health story, you enter into a relationship that must be governed by respect and reciprocity. It’s important to engage in a frank dialogue with the storyteller about how your organization might benefit from that person’s story.

If you can imagine a financial or public relations benefit from including this person’s story, how will you pass on those benefits to the storyteller?

Set aside time to communicate and agree on mutual expectations and parameters on how the organization or community will share the story. For example, where will you share it and for how long? If you’ll share on social media, determine precisely where it will be shared and who can access it. If the storyteller later changes their mind and wants to withdraw their story, what will you do?

The moments, days and weeks after someone shares their story with a community can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. The youth who participated in my research explained these mixed emotions to me.

On one hand, it can feel incredibly liberating for the storyteller to finally share their story in the way they intended. At the same time, it can also be distressing to relive moments of great struggle, deal with ignorant feedback and questions, or absorb the difficult stories of others who feel compelled to share their own experiences.

Supports needed

If you are part of a community or organization that is sharing a mental health story on behalf of someone who has freely consented to participate, ask the storyteller what kind of supports they may need during and after their story is shared.

People listening to or reading the mental health story you’ve shared might need mental health support too. When you prepare a list of mental health resources to accompany the story, go the extra mile to understand what happens when the person calls that number or approaches that service.

For example, is the resource an information service or does it also provide direct counselling? Is there a cost to the service? What languages and culturally relevant approaches are available? If the person needs more support than what’s available at that resource, what’s their next step?

Why that storyteller, and why their story?

You — or the organization you represent — may have different goals than the storyteller who has given you permission to share their story. It’s important to spend time understanding what I call “the why.”

Everyone has a different reason for sharing a mental health story. For the storyteller, the reasons for sharing can change every time they tell it. Many people with lived experience have already had their personal story shared in a way or at a time they didn’t predict or intend. In my case, I shared my mental health story for the first time out of necessity, to access the support I needed.

Work with the storyteller to understand on a deeper level why they have shared their story with your organization, and how they want it to be used.

How will you honour the story?

People with mental illness want to tell the truth about their lived experience. The truth includes moments of suffering and discrimination, but also many moments of strength and resilience. How will you present their mental health story in a way that doesn’t increase stigma towards the storyteller or the mental illness described?

In what ways is the story being shared congruent with your organizational brand and the experience of people who are members of your organization? If a person sharing their story about living with mental illness was part of your organization, how would their mental health be supported? What barriers might they encounter?

How does your organization plan to address systemic gaps for people with mental illness as you also work to increase mental health awareness?

Being gifted with the story of someone’s lived experience is a privilege.

This Bell Let’s Talk Day, let’s commit to honouring that gift. It’s priceless.

About the Author: Melanie-Anne Atkins, Educational Developer, Centre for Teaching and Learning, Western University

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