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NEWS | May 18, 2023

Guest speaker discusses mental health stigmas with NUWC Division Newport workforce

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

A nationally certified instructor in mental health care shared tips with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s workforce on how to address the stigmas that come with mental health challenges, as part of the command’s recognition of May’s Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month.

“The C Word in Mental Health,” led by Fern Chan, director of continuing and professional studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, was hosted by the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Office on May 9.

The presentation began with a video called “The Awkward Conversation,” where a woman opens up about her mental health challenges with various strangers. Chan asked the audience to observe the reactions and responses of the strangers when the woman was honest about her mental health.

Initially, the audience noticed that the strangers were caught off guard and a bit uncomfortable, but ultimately, it led to a healthy discussion of learning what to say and how to act when someone opens up about a mental health challenge. Simply asking how someone is doing and lending a listening ear can be instrumental to help people feel heard and validated, Chan said.

“I hope you got some insight on how to approach the conversation because it’s not easy, and statistics tell us that 1 in 5 adults experience a mental health challenge in the U.S,” she said.

Chan, who teaches crisis communication and de-escalation skills to law enforcement officers, also conducts workshops on how to effectively engage adult learners.

“I am going to give you some tools today to manage these conversations and to do it in a way that is respectful of other people’s cultural beliefs that are different from our own but also, so that we feel more comfortable just bringing it up.”

Chan shared that there are many “C” words related to mental health including “crazy, communication, culture, compassion and champion.”

“Usually, when I say mental illness, ‘crazy’ is the first ‘C’ word that comes to mind,” she said. “We jump to these conclusions when people’s mental health are not at the optimum state.”

The second “C” word Chan spoke on was “communicate.” She emphasized that learning how to communicate about mental health challenges us important, as many people face challenges in today’s society.

“Words have power. If we use negative language to associate with mental health challenges, then people will tend to associate it as a negative thing,” Chan said. “If we don’t talk about it enough in a positive light that takes away the blame, the shame and the pain.”

Chan also explained how culture plays a role in one’s mental health, specifically how difference cultures discuss, view and treat mental illness.

“We are all cultural beings and are shaped so much by our identities, our collective histories, the family values and cultures that have significant impact on our health,” she said. “It’s important to remember this connection so we can support somebody who may be experiencing a mental health challenge from within the cultural spaces that they occupy, which could be very different from what you may know as tradition for you.”

Chan offered the Asian perspective on mental health challenges.

“We are very private about those matters, we don’t talk about mental health,” she said. “Even from within my own community, it’s a struggle to change that mindset and beliefs that are so deeply rooted within family and community values.”

Chan then played another video about a father and son — the father struggling with his mental health and the son, learning how to be there for him. The purpose of which to have the audience observe the context, language and behaviors of the two characters.

A group discussion followed and attendees shared behaviors that they recognized to be related to mental health challenges and discussed ways to be supportive and how to address someone who may be struggling. At the beginning of the event, NUWC Division Newport employees also shared more positive “C” words, such as conversation, counselor and care.

“I want you to start with this other big ‘C’ in mental health — and that’s compassion,” Chan said. “Use compassion as your compass in these conversations. Someone who is in pain deserves compassion and help.

“It is also important to listen without judgment. We have to actively listen to understand what is happening in that person’s mind and hold that safe space for them to share and express what is difficult. Take in the perspective of the other person and honor it as their truth.”

During a question-and-answer session, Chan gave advice on what strategies work when in a relationship with someone who may be struggling with mental health issues. She urged everyone to become a “champion” in those relationships.

“Be champions of mental health and do not be afraid of having the conversation,” she said.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.