Mental health support is a top goal of the National Guard and reserve component, as it should be. The data are clear that Guard and reserve troops separated from the active component are at higher risk of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury due to lack of active-duty military support.
As reserve and Guard soldiers, getting help for mental health means we have civilian employers to inform. How do we talk to employers about getting help for our mental health and, moreover, gain their buy-in for continued support?
First things first: we either control the narrative, or the narrative controls us. To receive support from our workplace to get treatment, we are smart to talk to our bosses, our HR department and our colleagues about our mental health. Talking to civilian colleagues about military mental health issues is uncomfortable, but avoiding it is unrealistic.
To bridge this gap, we’ll create an “elevator speech” to give us structure, get straight to the point, and secure the buy-in we need from our civilian employer to get mental health help.
The mental health elevator speech
We get the term “elevator speech” from the business world. It’s brief, about 30 seconds (the time it takes to ride from the bottom to the top of a building in an elevator), and clearly and succinctly states our purpose. It follows tenets of narrative therapy and logotherapy and follows a specific outline:
Thank them for the opportunity to talk.
- Introduce our elephant: own our emotions/lack of emotion.
- Own our past – own our narrative and speak plainly.
- Describe our turning point – epiphany.
- Ask for buy in and support; manage expectations.
- Thank them/show dedication.
- Thank them for the opportunity to talk.
When talking with HR or our work team, start by setting the stage and thanking them for taking the time to speak with us (even if no one had a choice). If possible, proactively ask for an opportunity to speak with them; it shows courage and it controls the narrative.
Introduce our “elephant.” “The elephant in the room” is an expression that means there’s something present that is difficult to ignore, and we are smart to introduce it. For example, feeling nervous, emotionally raw or even numb when talking about mental health is OK so long as we acknowledge it. Same for using a note card; simply introduce it.
This may sound like: “In order to respect your time, I took some notes to help me stay on point,” or, “It is nerve-racking to speak to you about my PTSD because of the stigma, so I thank you for your patience.”
Own our past. This is an opportunity to own our behavior and not make any excuses. Focus on work issues and speak in concise terms. We do not have to share details, so keep it simple.
This may sound like, “When I first got back from deployment, I thought I was OK, but I had problems and started acting out at work.” Note: this is not the time for new revelations.
The epiphany. This is our turning point and notes why we have made the choice to change now. This can sound like, “After receiving a performance improvement plan, I realized that I need help.”
Ask for buy-in, manage expectations. We need support from our employer so we can get the help we need, and we need to manage expectations. This may sound something like, “I want to recover from PTSD, and I know it’s not easy. I’ll need to attend counseling weekly and take time off from work. I believe that with your continued support I can do this.”
Thank them/show dedication. Wrap it up smartly and thank them; we need their support. When it comes to showing dedication, we get to be dedicated to whatever we choose; just speak plainly and succinctly: “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk to you today. I want you to know that I am dedicated to our team and to our mission.”
Every elevator speech is as different as our experiences, and I encourage you to follow the outline. I developed the elevator speech on the work of Robert Rosenthal and Viktor Frankl, two greats in psychology, and this strategy has helped hundreds of soldiers gain the support of their civilian employers and forge a path to recovery.