The dinner table is a great place to talk about family matters — from cell phone rules to farm chores, the risks of driving under the influence and reminders about on-farm safety. Kellie Garrett says it’s time farm families expanded that list of dinner-table topics to include mental health.
A former senior executive with Farm Credit Canada, Garrett recently joined the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) board of directors. “Mental illness has affected four generations of my family that I know of,” she says. “It is something that a lot of people feel leery about discussing until they, or a friend or family member, are impacted.
“My own mother had severe depression and was afraid to get help because of witnessing the stigma her own mother experienced,” says Garrett. “When I was diagnosed, I didn’t even tell my sister. I had two children and an executive-level job, but I was so afraid of being judged as crazy or incompetent that I stayed silent.”
These days, Garrett routinely works awareness of mental illness into her work as an executive coach and speaker. Her primary goal is to help people understand that mental illness is a condition, not a moral failure and the sooner people get help, the healthier they’ll be.
Setting the table
Fiona Haynes is with the MHCC’s office in Calgary and she likes the idea of making time to talk about mental health with our families. Destigmatizing the topic makes it easier for people to seek help and avoid spiralling deeper into illness. Talking about mental health also helps people deliberately strategize about how they can reach out to family, friends and colleagues who need assistance.
Haynes recommends families start their discussion with a definition of what mental health actually means. “It’s normal to be sad, nervous or anxious from time to time,” she says. “A ‘mental health problem’ would be a state of mind that is distressing or concerning for the individual and lasts at least two weeks. It’s the persistence of the feeling that indicates that something else might be happening.”
Certain behaviour might also signal a problem. People experiencing mental illness might stop participating in regular activities, change their eating and sleeping habits or exhibit uncharacteristic fatigue, energy, anger, sadness, risk-taking or paranoia. “The key is ‘what’s different?'” says Haynes.
We should talk
Talking about mental health — or asking about a potential mental health problem — will not cause mental illness, emphasizes Haynes.
Ignoring concerns could, however, exacerbate a problem by contributing to the individual’s sense of isolation.
Pick an informal opportunity, like a car ride or during chores, to talk about concerning behaviour. “With young people in particular, not having to be face-to-face can help them feel more relaxed, making them more likely to speak,” says Haynes. “Also, choose a time when you’re feeling relatively calm and use statements like, ‘I’ve noticed’, ‘I’m worried’, ‘Can you tell me what’s happening’ or ‘I’m not sure what’s happening, but I care and I want to help.'”
Even in situations where a person might be suicidal, talking will not trigger selfharm. Asking someone a direct question, like “Do you think about hurting yourself?” lets that person know you are prepared to hear their response. Asking questions and offering support, says Haynes, tells them they are loved and needed.
If an intention for self-harm is expressed or suspected, it’s important to get professional help and review the environment to ensure the person doesn’t have easy access to things that could hurt them, like guns, drugs or chemicals. Here, the goal is to make self-harm more difficult. “Most people don’t want to die, but they can’t see a way to live in that moment,” says Haynes. “Any time we can buy is critical.”
Haynes cautions against using confrontational language — “Why are you acting like this?” or “Why are you so moody?” — or blaming. “Having a mental health problem is a difference, not a wrong,” she says. “By asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ we are inadvertently blaming the person for feeling the way they do. ‘What’s happened?’ is a far better question; it acknowledges a problem and opens an opportunity to talk.” Haynes recommends statements like: “I’m listening” or “I’m worried about you.”
Do not express opinions about prescribed medication, adds Garrett. “One of the reasons people go on and off prescribed medications for issues like depression or anxiety is that others may express surprise that they need it and may encourage them to stop taking medication,” she says. “Sadly, many of us already feel that taking medication means that we are weak. You wouldn’t encourage someone to stop medical treatment for a physical ailment. Don’t do it with a mental illness either.”
Garrett has also learned that mental health is unique to the individual. Some people are predisposed to mental illness while others are triggered by trauma. “And there are others who by their own admission lead a relatively tranquil life without any major negative experiences, who might experience horrible depression without trauma,” says Garrett.
Get help, offer help
The need to seek help is underlined by the ripple effect of mental illness, says Haynes. “Studies show when a child is depressed, parents are more likely to be depressed.” This can be compounded by worry and the financial and time costs of therapy. “If you are aware of a family in need, don’t wait for them to ask for help. Reach out and talk about mental health like you were checking in on how that broken shoulder is coming on.”