What’s more awkward? Making a colleague a cuppa and asking how they’re doing, or running through the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for depression to ascertain whether they require a professional referral? Any idea what I’m talking about?
The point is, you don’t need to know all this stuff to have a conversation about mental health. And even if you did, I doubt anyone would thank you for using it as an ice breaker.
I live with anxiety. I take daily medication and have had several therapists over the years. My anxiety can make me experience panic, anger, palpitations and racing thoughts. When things get frightening, it’s hard to compose myself and hold those feelings in.
But that’s exactly what I used to do at times because I had no idea what to say.
Today, however, I’m really open about anxiety and if ever I feel the panic chasing me I simply tell a friend or colleague that I feel it coming on.
They don’t sit me down for a therapy session. So how do they talk to me?
Often, my good mate Tom asking how I am then having a pop at my hairstyle can have me giggling away and forgetting the bad stuff. Sometimes he turns up on my doorstep with homemade fat rascals and Betty’s winter spiced tea and we forget my woes by discussing the drama on Albert Square.
Sometimes, he reminds me that it’s perfectly fine to feel the way I do and not to be too hard on myself. And the chat lightens the load.
If you’re worried that someone you know is struggling with their mental health, here’s a few ideas about how you can approach the conversation.
Keep it informal
Nobody needs, or indeed wants, an arranged therapy session with a friend or colleague. Ditch your formal PowerPoint presentation and therapeutic action plan. And don’t assume you need to get your mate lying down on a sofa, crying into a Kleenex and sharing their life story. A quiet cuppa with a chocolate hobnob and a discreet ‘How’re you doing? You haven’t seemed your bubbly self recently’ would suffice. It doesn’t need to be purposefully arranged either. But make sure the conversation is safe and discreet.
Drop the jargon
Even if you know it, don’t attempt to shoehorn your new found ‘psychology for dummies’ phraseology into the chat. It really isn’t needed. ‘How are you doing?’, ‘Can I help with anything?’, ‘What’s on your mind’, ‘I’m always here to chat’ – they all sound perfectly acceptable to me. It’s not rocket science. Although sometimes we do need to remind ourselves how to listen. Don’t judge, don’t try to force the conversation, just let that person know that you’re happy to chat and you’ll always be there for them.
Don’t treat people any differently
I’ve heard some people say that they don’t want to open up about an illness – be it physical or mental – because they don’t want to be treated differently. So regardless of what your friend or colleague discloses, make sure you still do what you normally do together. Whether that’s practising yoga while balancing a glass of kombucha tea on your head or watching Newcastle United lose again down the local pub (sorry, the truth can be painful). Just because someone is struggling with their mental health, doesn’t mean they won’t still enjoy a rip-roaring laugh with their mates or be able to deliver a complex project. Sure, these things might be a struggle at some point in time, but don’t make that assumption.
What if someone is feeling suicidal?
Sometimes just allowing a friend to open up about these feelings can create a huge sense of relief and make all the difference. However, if you’re concerned, call the Samaritans helpline, they are happy to contact the person you are worried about directly and offer support.
Start a conversation
Don’t be afraid of talking about mental health. It can bring people closer, help those who are feeling isolated and play a real part in somebody’s recovery.
And by the way, we don’t all sit rocking back and forth, clutching our heads and sobbing. Anyone could be struggling inside. So don’t be surprised if the office joker confides in you about mental illness. Outward confidence, smiles and laughs do not preclude somebody from experiencing a very real mental health problem.
Lucy is a mental health campaigner and writer whose book about stigma is out later in February.