The National Dialogue of Mental Health issued a glossary
of important terms in mental health. This glossary had its own
biases (as all do), so for our event we supplemented it with some
simple conflict-resolution guidelines. First, ask participants what
they personally mean when they use whatever words they
choose. Second, ask them what terms they prefer you use.
Lastly, be ready to have language clashes, since this problem is
so pervasive in mental health. At our dialogue event, we created
a guideline specifically addressing these language sensitivities.
Because we were mindful of language, and transparent about
this problem with our attendees, our discussion circles were
able to move past potentially offensive phrasings to discuss their
3: SET THE STAGE FOR COLLABORATION
Once we appreciated the diversity of perspectives in mental health and prepared to deal with the minefield of different
terms describing it, it was time to set the stage for our conversation. This was an especially daunting task, knowing that
participants not only held contrasting perspectives, but that
they were based on experiences that were sensitive and often
trauma-related. We used three key guidelines to help attendees overcome these differences without overlooking their
First, we asked them to speak from their own experience. This
meant a communal recognition that everyone had a unique perspective, and that we would respect each individual’s view as
valid. It also prevented people from offending one another with
loaded “you” statements.
Next, we asked participants to stay
mindful that this dialogue event was
a supportive space but not a support group. We stressed the need to
stay on task and follow our agenda
of brainstorming ideas for the White
House. If anyone felt the need to seek
their own personal support, we shared
resources so they could find alternative outlets to do so. This emphasis
on the agenda helped everyone work
together toward a common goal.
Our final guideline suggested that we all try to assume the best
intentions when a conflict occurred. In implementing this guideline,
we figuratively threw our hands up in the air and commiserated
around the complex differences surrounding this conversation.
As a community, we accepted that sensitivities would get stirred,
and acknowledged that those hurt feelings would be valid. But we
also asked if we could stay united in the meeting’s purpose to help
us continue moving forward despite that hurt. This spirit of collaborating through the clashes carried us through the four hours
CONCLUSION: A TOOLKIT FOR
MENTAL HEALTH CONVERSATIONS
The strategies we implemented at the National Dialogue
worked. We were able to include diverse attendees because we
were welcoming and validating to their varying perspectives. The
group was able to overcome sensitive differences in terminology
and ideas because our guidelines anticipated these challenges
and because we fostered a common spirit of uniting behind a
purpose-driven agenda to overcome these barriers.
Since that original event at John Jay College in New York City,
MH Mediate and the CUNY Dispute Resolution Center have applied
a similar approach to other dialogue and conversation events.
Most recently, we have received a grant from the New York State
Office of Mental Health to launch a “Talking Mental Health Toolkit”
that teaches conflict resolution practices to help people support
diverse choices, say the “right” thing, and get past positional conversations in mental health. Readers can sign up to receive it when
it becomes available, by visiting www.mhmediate.com/toolkit
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