Starting a conversation about mental health can feel scary, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m sure there are many times we have all noticed that somebody doesn’t seem quite themselves but haven’t known how to approach them. There is no ‘one size fits all’ formula for a successful sharing session, but there are some things that you can do to make the process feel a little bit easier for you and the other people involved.
- Consider your environment. If you’re worried about somebody, maybe asking them how they are feeling at work or in a busy shop could be a barrier to a genuine conversation. Why not invite them over for a cup of tea, or go for a nice drive or a walk? Asking them where they want to go can take the pressure off you, but if they are struggling to decide, somewhere peaceful is a good place to start.
- Give them your undivided attention. That doesn’t mean you can’t be doing something else at the same time – maybe it’s easier for them to talk if you’re doing an activity together like playing a game or cooking for example. But please don’t have one eye on your phone, check your watch or be thinking about what to have for dinner. Active listening is one of the most necessary ingredients to a good conversation.
- Don’t judge them. It doesn’t matter if somebody’s problems feel small to you, it matters how it feels to them. Please don’t ever tell somebody that they are being silly, remind them that others have it worse or minimise their experiences in any way. Listen with an open mind and validate their feelings.
- Don’t pressure them. With all the best will in the world, maybe it’s just not the right time for them for be opening up and sharing. Maybe some of the other ingredients aren’t quite right. Ask them if there is anything that could make it any easier. If the answer is no, please don’t take that as permanent unless they have explicitly said so. Let them know that the door is open if they change their mind, and that you are ready to listen when they are ready to talk.
- Look after yourself. It can be difficult supporting somebody with a mental health problem. Be aware of your own limitations, and notice when you may need some extra support yourself. Don’t put your own mental health at risk, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to take care of yourself too.
I used to find having conversations about my own mental health incredibly difficult – in fact I didn’t have them at all. I was ashamed and embarrassed and I thought nobody would be interested, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I started opening up about experiencing mental illness, I noticed how many people around me were willing to support me; but nothing anybody did has made me feel more valued and cared for than asking if I am okay and giving me their undivided attention to truthfully answer that question. Knowing there are people available for me to talk to, even if I don’t want to at that moment in time, is one of the most important factors in my recovery.
So now you might be thinking: why should I be having these conversations? The answer to that is simple.
We all have mental health.
Every single one of us, just as we all have physical health. Nobody, no matter how successful or loved or rich or beautiful, is immune to mental health problems – and surely, we all want to live in a world in which we can talk about what is bothering us? So many people suffer in silence because they don’t feel that they can start a conversation, or because other people are too afraid to ask. Imagine how many lives we could change – or save – if we all encouraged talking about mental health?
It’s very unlikely you’ll regret reaching out and asking somebody how they are, but you will always regret not taking that chance when it could be the very sign somebody needed to know that people care. By supporting those close to you and letting them know you are ready to listen, you could become a valuable part of their recovery.
Conversations save lives. Make today the day you start one.