Fighting Mental Health Stigma with Vulnerability

Lillian Glushka studies psychology and behavioral science at McGill University in Montreal. She has been fortunate to intern with the Blue Dove Foundation as part of Repair the World’s Serve the Moment program, launched in the summer of 2020. Lillian believes in the power of vulnerability to heal and reduce mental health stigma. She looks forward to continuing to learn about and address mental health issues in compassionate and productive ways.


Note: The bottom of the page includes resources to talk about shame and stigma as they relate to mental health.

For a while, I have struggled with how to address mental health — how to talk about it, help those in need and protect my own. I like to consider myself empathetic, courageous and in tune with others, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing the right things to say or do when encountering mental health issues. We all can improve how we care for ourselves and each other. Practicing vulnerability, which requires personal reflection and a willingness to be seen, is a valuable place to start.

This summer, I had the chance to help create a dinner discussion guide addressing the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, with the ultimate goal of #QuietingtheSilence on this issue. This project was challenging for a number of reasons, most notably my lack of expertise. In addition, we all hold pre-existing assumptions and judgements about who we are, what we feel and why we feel that way. There is no place for judgements and predispositions when talking about mental health.  The purpose of this tool is simply to create conversations, and the best conversations always leave a sense of hope and connection, and plenty of questions. 

Sharing Stories
As I began to work on this guide, I understood my ‘knowledge’ of mental health didn’t need to be textbook. Knowledge also comes from experience, and real stories are powerful. I’d like to share some of my personal experiences and reflections that helped inform the direction of this guide.  

When I was a sophomore in high school, the suicide of a beloved dance teacher shook my community. Her young and beautiful life was celebrated and remembered with love. As my community and I processed the pain accompanying this loss, I felt a shift in my understanding of health and healing. Paired with the sudden onset and development of chronic illness in my mother, I began to truly grasp the concept of battling sickness that is often impossible to control — whether it be mental or physical in nature. Learning to recognize my own struggles as well was crucial to coping with these changes in my life.

I found many avenues to share and process my feelings: my loving family, close childhood friends, a caring and devoted therapist, new friends made during a life-changing fellowship and classmates I barely knew before attending a senior retreat together. Each time, my chest became a little less tight and my spirit a bit lighter. I understood the importance of opening up and chose to share my stories — but not without trepidation. Throughout this process I asked myself, What underlies my fear, why does this fear exist and how can I help eliminate it? I knew all too well that shame surrounding emotional struggles is real, pervasive and contributes to personal fear and discomfort. I also realized the most effective way to combat this is simply to talk about it.

Mental Health as Social Justice
I began working with the Blue Dove Foundation as a summer Service Corps member for Repair the World’s Serve the Moment initiative. As inspiring speakers and peers helped me understand, mental health is inextricably linked with service and justice. Issues surrounding mental health reflect themes of social inequity: institutionalized bias, disparities in access to care, and the lasting effects of trauma related to racism and other forms of oppression.

Echoing in my mind is the Talmudic quote, “Whoever saves a single life, it is considered as if [they] saved an entire world.” This guided all of the service done during the program. Whether it is packaging food at a pantry, sharing music with nursing home residents, providing shelter for those experiencing homelessness or fighting voter suppression, we all are committed to saving lives and working in the spirit of tikkun olam. I view conversations about mental health as critical to this work — each and every step toward enhancing an individual’s life is essential to repairing our souls and the world. The fight against mental health stigma is a fight for justice. 

Being of service means a willingness to show up and, more important, be present. I believe vulnerability can save lives. 

As stated beautifully by the queen of vulnerability, Brené Brown,

“We can’t be brave in the big world without at least one small safe space to work through our fears and falls.”

So be willing to sit with others, have a conversation, share stories and be seen. Vulnerability can heal and #QuietTheSilence. My hope for this guide is to create even more safe spaces that allow us all to be brave and feel loved for who we are.

Turn the Tables: Quieting the Silence Dinner Resource
This dinner resource is available for you to use with your family and friends to create a safe space and take time to think about shame and stigma as they relate to mental health. The dinner inserts allow you to customize the experience.

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