How to Talk About Mental Health

February 19, 2021
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Mental health can be difficult for some people to talk about, whether you’re talking to fellow colleagues, friends or family. However, there are ways of preparing yourself to facilitate these conversations; this can make you feel more confident and able to let others know that you are there for them.

In this article, we will discuss some tips for starting conversations around mental health, providing guidance on useful topics and what not to say to someone who is struggling.

What Should I Consider for Starting a Conversation About Mental Health?

When you’re concerned about someone, the first thing you should do is talk to them about it – don’t underestimate the impact you can have by simply asking if they’re OK and what you can do to help. However, it can be difficult to know whether you’re saying the right thing. To help you, we have collated some tips on what not to say in these situations.

Don’t say:

  • ‘I think you have depression’ – or any other kind of diagnosis. This is unnecessary and inappropriate if you aren’t a trained healthcare professional; everyone behaves and reacts to things differently, so even if you think you recognise the symptoms, you may not be correct. It’s more important for you to discuss what they are feeling and how long they have been feeling this way; if their symptoms have had a serious impact on them for over two weeks, you should signpost them to their GP.
  • ‘Snap out of it’, ‘cheer up – it can’t be that bad’, or ‘everything will be fine’. You can’t ‘snap out of’ a condition like depression or anxiety the same way you would a bad mood. Mental health conditions are often deeply rooted in a person’s mindset, or down to a chemical imbalance in their brain. Statements like these might also prevent someone from going to seek further help when they need to, because they imply that they are overreacting and just need to get on with it.
  • ‘I think X would make you feel better’. It’s best not to offer unsolicited advice in these situations – additionally, there is no single best way to manage mental health challenges. While exercise might help you, it is not guaranteed to help everybody, because mental health problems have different underlying causes; you can read more about this in our article ‘Mental Health Myths vs Facts: What are the Realities?’. If someone does ask for your advice, you could suggest general wellness tips such as getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, eating a balanced diet and connecting with other people. However, make it clear that different things work for different people, and if their problem continues longer than two weeks, visiting their GP might be best.

Things to Keep in Mind

Another thing that you should consider before starting a conversation about mental health is the other person’s privacy. They likely won’t want to discuss a potentially sensitive topic in a place where lots of people they know might overhear – for example, in the office. It would be better to ask them if they want to go for coffee, lunch or a walk with you, somewhere that feels comfortable and confidential.

After they have talked to you, keep what they have said private: there is no need for anyone else to know about it unless they expressly ask you to tell someone or it is an emergency (for example, if they feel suicidal). You should also act normally around them – ask how they are when you see them, but discreetly.

A final point is to really listen during these conversations. Don’t interrupt, assume that you know what they’re going to say, or spend your time planning what to say next rather than actually listening. Instead, let them say everything they want to say, using positive body language to encourage them (such as making eye contact regularly and nodding), and asking relevant open questions to clarify what they have said.

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Interested in Learning More?

If you want to further develop your mental health awareness, our online Mental Health Awareness course aims to increase your understanding of common mental health conditions and that of your own mental health. Including how it might suffer, and what you can do about it.

Mental Health Conversation Topics

In this section, we will discuss phrases and topics you could use to start, encourage, and end a conversation about mental health.

Initiating the Conversation

When you are ready to start a conversation about mental health, the easiest way to go about it is to ask how they are today. This might seem obvious, but it gives them an opportunity to talk about their feelings straight away. If they give you a generic answer (such as ‘fine, thanks’), you could ask again to show that you really are interested – for example, ‘no, really, is everything OK?’. Don’t push them to tell you if they don’t want to, but making it clear that you aren’t just asking out of politeness shows that you are there to support them. This might make them more likely to come and talk to you when they are ready to.

If you’ve noticed something worrying about their behaviour, another way to bring up mental health is to state this – for example, ‘you’ve been a bit quiet lately, is everything OK?’. However, with this approach, it’s important to ensure that you use a caring – rather than accusatory – tone.

Other potential conversation starters include talking about mental-health-related stories in the news, such as celebrities that have recently spoken out about it. For example, Prince Harry has been raising awareness and trying to reduce stigma about mental health, along with Prince William and Kate Middleton. Sharing these sorts of stories shows the other person that you aren’t judgemental, and provides them with the opportunity to share their own experience. If you have any experience of mental health difficulties yourself – even if you’ve just been particularly worried about something recently – you could also talk about that.

Open-Ended Questions About Mental Health

Open-ended questions are great tools to use in these sorts of conversations, because they provide the other person with the opportunity to think and reflect, and respond however they want to. The right sorts of questions can also help you to help them, because they give you insight into their wellbeing and the severity of the situation.

These questions include:

  • ‘How long have you been feeling like this?’
  • ‘What do you think might have caused you to feel this way?’
  • ‘What can I do to help/make you feel supported?’

Based on their answers to these questions, you should get a good sense of whether to suggest that they go to their GP, treat it as an emergency, or signpost them to resources such as Mind for further information.

Ending the Conversation

To end the conversation, it could be a good idea to reinforce that you are there for them. For example, you could say: ‘I’m glad you have talked to me about this – I’m here if you need to talk again in the future’. It’s a good idea to check in with the person afterwards; you could follow up by text or email, reinstating your support, or simply ask them how they are when you next see them. This shows them that you do want to be a source of support.

Scenarios for Supporting Someone with their Mental Health

To illustrate what to do in different situations, we have put together a few mental health scenarios.

Scenario 1 – Mental Health in the Workplace

Your colleague, Sam, has become quiet and withdrawn. He doesn’t seem as motivated or cheerful as usual, and you are worried. You approach him and ask him to go for coffee during your lunch break. He tells you about his recent struggles with sleeping and a low mood, and you listen actively, asking a few open questions afterwards about how long it’s been going on for and what might have caused it. Because Sam hasn’t been to see a doctor, and has felt consistently low for over a month, you offer your support and ask if he has considered seeing his GP.

Scenario 2 – Unwilling to Talk

An acquaintance that you see regularly, Jane, seems to be quieter and more distracted than usual. You don’t know her very well, but you ask how she is and mention that you’ve noticed she seems quiet. She tells you that everything is fine. You tell her that you’re always around to chat if she needs to, and that it was nice to see her. You keep an eye out for any future behaviour changes or warning signs and continue to be friendly, but don’t force the issue. Jane might be getting support from somewhere else already, so you accept that she doesn’t need to talk to you.

Scenario 3 – Mental Health Emergency

When you meet up with a friend of yours – Amelia – for a walk, she tells you that she has been feeling terrible lately and she just wants it all to stop. You are concerned that this might mean suicide. You ask whether she is thinking about ending her life; it is a myth that asking this will put the thought into someone’s head. She says she has thought about it, but she hasn’t made any plans to. You encourage her to talk about it, listen without interrupting or judging, and ask whether she has any protective factors (things that would stop someone from ending their life – for example, their religion, or their family). She does have protective factors, and so you offer her support and encourage her to make an appointment with her GP very soon. You check in with her later that night, and over the next few days.

If Amelia had been planning to end her life and had no protective factors, you should not leave her until you have obtained support for her. Give her reassurance and either call 999, take her to A&E, or request an emergency GP appointment.

Tips for Talking About Mental Health

Before you go and start your conversation, here are 5 final quick tips:

  • Having the conversation is the first step, but remember to do your research before you signpost someone to potential next steps. Use websites like Mind to learn more.
  • Sometimes, offering to go to the GP with someone could be a big help. However, don’t take control over the situation – ultimately, it’s their choice.
  • Think about other points of contact if talking face-to-face isn’t working – some people feel more comfortable talking about mental health over the phone, through text, or through email. You could also choose a situation where you are side-by-side to take the pressure off – for example, talk while you are cooking, driving, or walking.
  • Allow them to open up at their own pace. These conversations shouldn’t be rushed, so don’t start it if you don’t have time. It might take several discussions before you get to the root of the issue – that’s OK!
  • Remember to look after yourself too – you can’t help others if you are not well yourself. Ensure that you are getting enough sleep, eating well, and setting boundaries if necessary.

Talking about mental health shows others that you are there for them, and reduces the stigma that still surrounds it. Doing your research and knowing what to say and what not to say ensures that your conversations will go as smoothly as possible. We hope that this article has given you some ideas that you can use in the future.

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