How to be more socially inclusive towards people with mental distress

23 January 2024

Social inclusion is the process of improving the ability, opportunity and dignity of people to take part in society.

What does inclusivity look like?

“When you feel a part of something or a strong sense of belonging, then you can be your own true person. You can feel hope and it helps your recovery journey.” 
- Chloe

An inclusive society is one that supports people, provides opportunities, and celebrates diversity. Welcoming spaces do not discriminate or have prejudiced beliefs. They allow people with experience of mental distress to meaningfully participate in, and contribute to, all aspects of community life as equal citizens.

Where does discrimination occur?

Mental distress discrimination occurs everywhere – in our workplaces, educational institutions and neighbourhoods. It is also in social structures like our health system and even in our own homes. Mental distress discrimination can affect people’s:

  • relationships with whānau, family and friends
  • ability to go about our day-to-day lives
  • access to employment, education, housing, government support and healthcare. 

Why does it matter?

“To feel included, whether it’s at home, work, school or within your wider community, makes you feel less alone, and helps to uplift you.”
- Chloe

Those with experience of mental distress can face prejudiced beliefs and social discrimination, which make our situation worse. It can also make it harder to seek help and recover.

One in five people who experienced mental distress reported they had avoided doing something, or were afraid to do something, because they anticipated being discriminated against (source).

How can you help?

Here are ways that you, your workplace or community organisation can be more inclusive for those with experience of mental distress.

  1. “Building strong inclusive workplaces benefits everyone. If someone feels able to speak freely about their own experiences, there can be a positive flow-on effect where others feel safe to also speak up. It can bring people together and create a safe working environment.” 
    - Chloe

    Workplace discrimination can be particularly damaging for those who experience mental distress. It can affect our ability to be employed or promoted, as well as impact whether we disclose our experience to employers.

    An inclusive workplace is one that creates a positive culture and supports mental wellbeing.  

    Evidence suggests that employment is one of the most important factors in improving quality of life for people with experience of mental illness and distress.

    Here are some things to try to help build an inclusive workplace for those with experience of mental distress:

    • Create an environment where people can be honest about how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing.

    • Use supportive, understanding language when someone is sharing their story with you. Saying “How can I help?” or “I’m here if you need anything” can help someone seek support when needed.

    • It can be hard for someone to ask for things for themselves. Proactively asking what reasonable accomodations would help them removes this burden. For example, offering time off for medical appointments, work from home days or reduced hours.

    • Educate yourself about what mental distress can be, use inclusive language and call out any discriminatory language. See here for tips.

    • Consult those with lived experience of mental distress when creating workplace policies that have an affect on employee wellbeing.

    • Consider incorporating Te Whare Tapa Whā into your workplace policies, culture and decision-making. Te Whare Tapa Whā is a wellbeing model that describes health and wellbeing as a wharenui/meeting house with four walls. These walls need to be in balance for people to thrive. Visit here for more information.



  2. Choosing your words carefully helps to avoid excluding anyone who is experiencing, or has experience of, mental distress.  

    Some everyday words or phrases have negative connotations that can contribute to stereotyped perceptions of mental distress. Use language that promotes inclusivity and reduces discrimination by avoiding:

    • Derogatory or hurtful language like “crazy”, “insane” or “psychotic” to describe someone whose behaviour you dislike. This contributes to negative perceptions and disinformation about mental distress. Using mental health terms to describe such behaviour can also deeply hurt someone who is battling their own mental distress. 

    • Instead, describe the behaviour for what it actually is. You might want to name an action as ‘bad’, ‘unpleasant’ or that it makes you uncomfortable. 

    • Labelling someone, for example, say, “They live with bipolar" not “They are bipolar" as the condition is just one part of their life. 

    • See the person first, not their diagnosis

    • Using mental health terms to describe unrelated things as this can minimalise or trivialise someone’s actual experience of mental distress. For example, describing someone’s need to keep things tidy as “being OCD”, increased energy-levels as “having ADHD”, mood swings as “being bipolar” or temper outbursts as “being psycho”.

    "When people describe a moment of hyperactivity as having ADHD, it diminishes my own experience of living with this condition to just one aspect of something that affects my whole life.” 
    - Esta.

    For more ways to talk positively about mental distress see the tips here

  3. “If you understand more about what someone with mental distress may be going through, then you’ll be more aware of the impact that your words and actions can have on others.”
    - Esta

    Most people with experience of mental distress will recover. However, discrimination is one of the biggest barriers to recovery. Here are some ideas to help increase your understanding so you can help fight negative perceptions and discrimination:

    • Reading stories about what those with lived experience of mental distress face or must deal with on a day-to-day basis here.

    • Avoiding generalising or passing judgement about someone's mental health conditions based on negative stereotypes. For example, assuming someone is unsafe, dangerous or violent because of their condition or that they’re attention seeking.

    Checking your knowledge of mental distress here.

  4. “Inclusivity comes from a better understanding of intersectionality within society; where we have more awareness and comprehension that we all experience things differently.” 
    - Esta

    Being inclusive is about how you listen and respond to people and how you enable them to have a voice and feel heard. You can:

    • Challenge stereotyped perceptions by speaking up when you hear negative or incorrect comments.

    • Actively challenge views based on prejudice and stereotypes.

    • Help raise awareness by inviting lived experience leaders and advocates (e.g. mental health organisations) to speak at your workplace/group/activity.

    • If you, or your organisation, has an idea to challenge mental distress discrimination apply for the next round of Puna Pūtea Social Action Grants.