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My Coast Guard
Commentary | May 2, 2024

How to prioritize mental health and have healthy conversations about it

By Jose Jasso, Employee Assistance Program Manager

The month of May is dedicated as Mental Health Awareness Month throughout the United States. It’s an opportunity to bring attention to the importance of prioritizing our mental health and promoting open conversations about it. The Coast Guard recognizes the importance of mental health, its impact on our personal and professional lives, and the need to ensure our total workforce and family members have the necessary mental healthcare resources to stay resilient and mission ready.   

So how can you prioritize mental health and promote open conversations about it? As leaders, how can you create an environment that encourages someone to open up about what they are going through?  Distress can show up in many ways. It may be the look on someone’s face, the tone of their voice, their body language, or perhaps you have noticed that they have been acting differently lately, but you are just not sure what to do or say.   

Whether you are a USCG military member, civilian employee, or family member, below are some ideas for things to say during a conversation that may encourage someone to open up about their personal concerns or mental health challenges:  

  • “Are you sure? If you want to talk, let me know.”  
  • “It seems like something is bothering you. I’m here to listen if you want to share.”  
  • “I’ve been ‘fine’ before – I’m here if you want to talk about it.”  
  • “Do you want to [get coffee/go to lunch/grab a bite/take a walk] later? I feel like we have a lot to catch up on.”  
  • “That wasn’t very convincing – I’m here if you want to chat.”  

What if someone does open up to you?  Now what?  Your response, especially that from a leader, can make a world of difference in that person’s life. Below are some DO’s and DON’Ts to consider as part of your response:  

  • Do listen. Listening means actively paying attention to the person who is speaking and resisting the urge to talk about personal experiences unless asked. This is hard for everyone, but practice helps!  
  • Do ask if they’ve thought about what they might need to feel better. If they haven’t, offer to support, listen, and talk it out with them. If they have, support them in following through with their needs.  
  • Do make sure to keep things confidential unless it is life threatening, or policy directs otherwise.  
  • Do normalize. Assure the person you’re talking to that having a mental health concern is common, and there are lots of resources to help them address their concerns and feel better.  
  • Do know your helping resources—e.g., chaplain, EAPC/S, CG SUPRT, medical clinic, community-based medical and mental health services, Safe Helpline, RAINN, 988, 911, and others.   
  • Do prepare to follow up. It takes courage for someone to speak up about what is bothering them. Exchange contact information (if you don’t have it already) and touch base in a few days to see how the person is feeling and if there is anything you can do to help.   

  • Don’t tell them, “You shouldn’t think that way.” It can be difficult to have conversations about mental health concerns, and they may have worried about it for some time before talking to you.  
  • Don’t use the word “crazy.”  
  • Don’t tell someone what they SHOULD do; instead, ask what they want you to help them with.  
  • Don’t assume that they want your advice. Many times, people just want someone else to listen to them and help them feel less alone.  
  • Don’t make comparisons. Telling someone “it could be worse” minimizes their experience and invalidates their feelings.  
  • Don’t take on trying to fix all of the person’s problems. Offer help where appropriate, but don’t get into a trap of trying to solve the problem, especially if it seems like a professional should be involved.  

NOTE:  If someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, DO everything you can to get them professional help. If anything, call 988 or 911 for guidance.   

Below are some key Coast Guard resources that can help you support those around you and further encourage them to prioritize their mental health:  

Mental Health Awareness Month reminds us that dealing with daily life’s pressures can be overwhelming, but everyone deserves to feel supported and empowered to seek help when needed.  All of us, especially leaders, can play a role in cultivating an open and honest workplace culture that encourages conversations about mental health and promotes help-seeking behavior that improves resilience, mental health well-being, and mission readiness.