So you’ve decided to have a conversation about mental health? That’s amazing! Whether you’re the person being brave enough to talk, or the one taking the time to listen, you’re doing a great thing.
I’ve attempted to talk about my struggles with depression, anxiety and panic attacks more times than I can count, to varying degrees of success. I know there can be so much pressure and expectation surrounding this conversation and I’ve come to realise - through lots of trial and error - that four key things can help make this conversation as good as possible.
The first? COMFORT.
I’ve talked about my mental health in many uncomfortable settings: in the deputy head’s office at school; around the dinner table with my parents; in a cramped, grey meeting room on campus. It doesn’t have to be this way! It’s crucial that everyone in the conversation feels physically and emotionally comfortable throughout, but keep in mind that different things work for different people. I like being in my own house so I’m in control and it’s a familiar, quiet environment. Others may like being in a more public yet still relaxed setting, like a coffee shop. Some may find comfort in holding the other person’s hand throughout the conversation, or being given the occasional hug, but others won’t want to be touched at all - perhaps start by laying out boundaries.
I’d argue there’s one universal rule: if you’re the one listening to someone else’s experiences, please put your phone on silent and ideally keep it out of sight. I find that if someone’s phone keeps going off or they’re often looking towards it, my walls go up because I panic that they don’t really want to be talking to me, or would rather be elsewhere.
The next key thing is TIME.
This is vital. If someone is willing to talk to you about their mental health, you should be honoured that they feel comfortable enough with you to share what’s on their mind. But please don’t expect them to sum up their experiences in a five minute, well-rehearsed, easy-to-digest speech. There will be pauses, stuttering, muttering, tangents, tears - or even a good few minutes of silence whilst they work out how and where to begin.
So, it’s really important this conversation takes place when all participants have a decent chunk of time to spare. It’s also a good idea to manage expectations from the start - by warning the person that you have, say, until 3pm to sit with them. This helps to avoid the risk of the person sharing their story feeling like a burden or a nuisance for taking up your time.
Next, let’s talk about REFRESHMENTS.
What may sound trivial can actually be one of the most important ingredients in a good conversation. I’m always more open and expansive (and honest) with a mug of tea or coffee in front of me. I suppose this is partly because of the warmth a hot drink gives, making me feel instantly more comfortable (and as I’ve already outlined, comfort is key). But I also think just having something to do with your hands, and a secondary focus, can assist in easing nerves. Plus, taking a sip from your mug gives you a chance to pause, breathe, and really consider what you’d like to say.
Of course, if you’re not a hot drink fan and you can’t be tempted by a biscuit, you could have something else nearby to fiddle with if necessary – a pen, a piece of jewellery or a soft toy are all good options.
Finally, consider your NEXT STEPS.
If you’ve listened to a friend or loved one talk about their mental health, you might be upset, or unsure what to feel - that’s understandable! Please remember that, although you’ve been someone’s confidant, you’re entitled to seek help yourself. Check in with how you’re feeling, and use the Time to Change website to find out how to seek support.
If you’ve just shared your experiences, it’s ok if you’re unsure what you want to happen next! Ask your loved one whether they’re happy to continue to be a listening ear, accompany you to future appointments etc.
Neither of you should make firm promises or resolutions - this could cause upset in future if they can’t be met. In one of my lowest moments, a friend suggested that from then on, we should think of ourselves as a team, facing everything together. I think this is a brilliant next step to take: agreeing that, whilst neither of you has immediate answers or solutions, you’re a team, picking up the slack for one another where necessary - because a problem shared really is a problem halved.