Working in the field of Mental Health, I know that seeking support can make all the difference. That said, I often hear people being described as ‘brave’ when they do take action. I have an issue with this word, let me explain why.
Is Bravery a Barrier to Mental Health Support?
What springs to mind when you think of being brave? For me, it is the Russian newsreader protesting against the war live on air. It is people taking up arms to defend their towns and communities in Ukraine. It’s the firefighters who rescue people from burning buildings or the coastguards that venture out in stormy seas to save a crew.
Here are two dictionary definitions:
“The quality that allows someone to do things that are dangerous or frightening” – Britannica
“The quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: courage showing bravery under fire.” – Merriam Webster
Being brave is daring, fearless, heroic, gallant and valiant. It is often associated with self-sacrifice. In my experience, both as a Mental Health First Aid Trainer and as someone who has had personal struggles with mental well-being, I don’t believe this matches the frame of mind of someone who is struggling.
In suggesting people are brave for seeking mental health support, we imply that it is something to be feared. It suggests that you have to be tough and battle-ready to deal with what’s in store. This perception can add to the overwhelm of seeking help and make it seem too much to deal with. It means people suffer in silence.
I recently found an article* that shared my view. It was written in 2020, but the author eloquently explains my thoughts. She describes the word ‘brave’ as condescending; as shame repackaged as respect. In her words, “Disclosure, sharing, seeking help does require strength… but facing this is not bravery. It is the urgent need for help trumping the possibility of stigma.”
Words of Encouragement
The majority of people who say ‘you’re brave’ to someone who is seeking help for mental health concerns don’t mean it with malice. They intend to be supportive. For this reason, I’ve been exploring other words of encouragement that could replace ‘brave’.
If someone was speaking to me about ill-health and voiced that they were going to contact a specialist organisation, speak to their GP or another professional, I might respond with one of the following:
- That’s a good idea / wise idea
- I fully support you
- Well done for getting the support you deserve
- Therapy has been amazing for me; I hope you’ll feel the same way
- Thank you for telling me
- I’m pleased to hear you’re getting support
I believe that these phrases offer reassurance and back up the individual’s decision. There is no undercurrent of sympathy and it doesn’t throw up barriers.
Looking on the Mind website, they use the word ‘empowered’ on the seeking help page. This word builds confidence, it implies the individual taking control of the situation and putting things right on their terms.
Reducing the Stigma of Mental Health Conditions
Part of the reason that people are described as brave for seeking support with mental health issues is that stigma still exists. We can openly admit to having a bad back, a broken arm or asthma, yet feel the need to hide the fact that we are suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression or panic attacks. It is almost as though those of us facing mental health challenges are abnormal.
The reality is that a quarter of the population have or will experience a period of poor mental health. According to Mind** 1 in 6 people will be struggling in any given week. We have all felt the impact of isolation, uncertainty and social anxiety through the pandemic, we know that our well-being can take a hit. So why is speaking up and being honest viewed as risky?
My mission is to make it normal practice for people who are struggling with their mental health to get help. The earlier this happens, the better the chance of turning things around and getting on with life. I want people to feel empowered to do what they need to get back on track, to regain confidence and to live life to the full. This vision is only possible if we all respond with respect rather than sympathy to those who speak up.