It’s okay NOT to be okay | Mental Health Awareness Week

On occasion of the Mental Health Awareness Week, our HR Lead Marie Downes talks about it and emphasises an usually forgotten but extremely important aspect of it: language. How do we approach Mental Health? Is the way we talk about us and our problems helping us?

I find it fascinating that in English, we tend to focus on the protagonist (“I knocked the cup over”) more than speakers of Spanish, who tend to omit the protagonist (“The cup was knocked over”) and focus on the object. One study found that English speakers are more likely to remember the protagonist of accidental events and to a degree one would think, to attach blame. It’s a linguistic quirk but it’s intriguing how this can segue into behaviour.

There’s a brilliant TED presentation by Lera Boroditsky | How language shapes the way we think, a cognitive scientist (one of the authors of the above study), who maintains that the language we speak shapes the way that we think. It’s THAT transformative. There’s a charming and thought-provoking passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where she discusses the differences between her native language and that of Italian:

“We were talking the other evening about the phrases one uses when trying to comfort someone who is in distress. I told him that in English we sometimes say, 'I've been there.' This was unclear to him at first - I've been where? But I explained that deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope.

'So sadness is a place?' Giovanni asked.

'Sometimes people live there for years,' I said.”

The language that we used to talk about mental health issues is hugely important. A survey by BUPA and Mental Health First Aid England found that 49% of people have used words such as schizophrenic and psychotic to incorrectly describe themselves. While this may not seem problematic at first glance, this throwaway language actually makes it harder for people to receive the support that they need. According to Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, “if terms used to describe mental health are regularly being used in a negative way, it can make it more difficult for someone to feel comfortable about having an honest and important conversation about their condition, potentially delaying the time it takes for them to seek help.” Put simply, the use of language in this way has an impact on how we feel and what we do about seeking help.

Whilst I make no claim of perfection as to how we approach mental health at Adaptive, we talk about it,we encourage and support our leaders in identifying the signs of poor mental well-being in their staff, we publicise our approach and openness to addressing mental well-being, we provide resources to support our team and more importantly, we engage with those suffering as human beings, we speak the same language.


Marie Downes picture

Marie Downes

Chief Talent Officer,
Adaptive Financial Consulting


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