It takes courage to ask for help

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSWImagine a world where asking for help is recognized as a strength and a hallmark of courage. Imagine a world where people coping with mental illness aren’t stigmatized, devalued or diminished.

Imagine further that mental illness is considered a disease, just like cancer, wherein seeking prevention and treatment is viewed as routine good health-seeking behaviour.

Imagine a world where people don’t have to struggle with asking for help, but can be confident that when doing so they/we won’t be judged as weak or lacking, but will be supported.

For far too long, instead of being celebrated for the courage to seek help, people experiencing a mental illness have been the targets of societal stigma, prejudices and negative societal attitudes.

As a result, people struggling with mental health challenges may not get the help they need for fear they’ll/we’ll be the target of stigma and will be discriminated against.

People with mental illness represent, perhaps, one of the most profoundly stigmatized groups in America. Many of the more than 45 million Americans who suffer from some type of mental health disorder might describe stigma using these words: discrimination, prejudice, fearfulness, hate, humiliating, and/or hurtfulness.

To our collective societal shame, people experiencing mental disorders must cope with stigma on a daily basis. But why should they? Why should asking for help be an admission that something is wrong with you, that you are weak, or broken?

Asking for help is an experience of vulnerability and an act of courage. Asking for help comes from a place of neediness, insufficiency and dependency — a risky place wherein we are exposed and at risk of rejection. To ask for help when feeling this vulnerable requires courage.

Asking for help with mental illness takes the courage of vulnerability — the stepping into the vulnerability of realizing the need for help.

Brené Brown in her groundbreaking research found that courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength.

Imagine the courage it takes to get beyond the fear, embarrassment and shame that accompanies the vulnerability of knowing you need to ask for help.

Several years ago, I attended a conference focused on the mental health needs of service men and women and their families. The conference theme was “Living in the New Normal,” a new normal wherein deployments are more frequent and are for longer durations. As I listened to the presenters talk about the day-to-day stress of trying to balance military responsibilities, family responsibilities, and one’s mental health needs, I was struck by the ingrained cultural perception that asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness.

During the conference, I was encouraged to learn the Department of Veterans Affairs’ slogan, “It takes the strength and courage of a warrior to ask for help.” One general spoke about why some don’t seek help by sharing a soldier’s story. In telling the story, he stated, “It’s a tough thing for a guy — it’s a macho thing — to admit he’s got a problem he can’t handle. They either ignore the problem, or they try to fix it themselves.”

He went on to discuss ways he communicates that it’s OK to ask for help, sharing his desire to catch these things before they escalate.

As I reflected on the discussions during the conference, I realized that the military culture is simply a microcosm of our larger societal misperception that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

As professional social workers, we know that when people have difficulty asking for help, manageable issues can go unaddressed and eventually require more care. We know the value of asking for help and that doing so in a timely manner can positively impact the delivery of health care and enhance individual and family well-being.

Social workers play an important role in helping shift societal norms and perceptions of mental illness and help-seeking behaviors. Given our values and ethics, social workers are professionally obligated to encourage people to ask for and accept help. We must utilize our skills to foster a culture wherein people are willing to give and receive help, intrepidly.

By asking for help ourselves, social workers can be role models for help-seeking behavior and enable others to have the courage to ask for help as well.

Imagine a world where people ask for help with mental illness without any shame and mental health issues are addressed as normal, everyday matters.

May is mental health month and a good time to double-down on our collective commitment to work together to end stigma and change the way asking for help is viewed within American society.

Contact Angelo McClain at