Starting a conversation about mental health isn’t always the easiest thing to do, whether you are talking about your own mental health or you want to express your concern for a friend/family member, it takes courage to do so.
Talking to my friends/family about what was going on in my head before I finished therapy was a rarity. It was just something I wasn’t comfortable with and it was too challenging as there were a lot of thoughts and feelings that rushed to me before I even began to talk and most of the time I didn’t understand how they somehow all worked together. I was there for my friends though, I listened, offered advice but I usually ended up taking on their shit and either trying to deal with my shit at the same time or I’d focus solely on their shit and forget about mine and in all honesty, neither of those worked out well for me.
Once I had finished my therapy my passion for mental health was fuelled by me wanting to help those who are struggling. Over time I have been trying to improve on my conversation skills (My attention span can be quite short sometimes though and this doesn’t really apply to situations where I am feeling socially anxious or using small talk, only if I feel someone is opening up to me will they get my absolute full attention) in order for me to become a better listener and someone to trust if times get tough. I’ve written below some of my personal tips on how to start a conversation with a friend about mental health. All tips are what I have figured out over the years and they are based on how I would’ve liked the conversation to have been brought up (the tips may or may not work for everyone but it could be worth a shot).
Things to note beforehand:
- You don’t have to work on your empathy skills, as long as you know the difference between empathy and sympathy you should be good but it’s important to remember how effective showing empathy is. Empathy will allow those who are confiding in you see that you are with them, understanding and you aren’t judging them or their lives.
- Think about where you are going to have this chat, the location is important as you want to make sure both you and them are comfortable. If I’m wanting a deep chat with a friend I want absolutely no one else around, just the two of us and I want to be somewhere I am familiar with and somewhere that is comforting to me. It’s good to consider where they like to be or what they like to be doing.
- Be prepared to deal with all kinds of emotions and/or thoughts but do not doubt your ability to deal with them.
Starting the conversation:
So you’re ready and prepared for the chat, now, here are some tips on how to get the conversation started.
- If you’re comfortable enough to speak about your own mental health first, this could be a good starting point. Showing them that it is okay to talk about whatever is going on in your head and that they aren’t alone could be the reassurance that they need to feel confident enough to begin to talk. By speaking first you help to build a trust between your friend and you.
- Do not add pressure. Extremely important, never ever pressure someone into talking about mental health, it’s not fair on them and could only make things worse. I repeat, never add pressure.
- Start a conversation by letting them know that you have noticed changes in their moods, behaviours or routine. Don’t express too much worry (as this could cause them to get defensive) just let them know that you have noticed that something isn’t quite right.
- Don’t be too direct as this could cause their barriers to go up and they could get defensive.
- Consider your tone of voice for the type of conversation you are about to have. You wouldn’t use the same voice tone for a mental health talk as you would if you were out for beers with your mates so use your voice to help them.
How to respond during the conversation:
- Again, be empathetic.
- Avoid being too full on. Try and refrain from giving physical affection, for me personally if I am opening up to someone I don’t always want to be hugged, have my hand held or be touched as this can feel like sympathy, it can invade my personal space (which is extremely important to me when I am feeling vulnerable), it can be a distraction and it can feel like a way of ending the conversation.
- Ask questions. This will not only help to keep you listening but by asking questions you are engaging in their conversation. Asking questions might help them figure out what is going on or what they need to do, it shows them that you are listening and that you are paying attention as well and hopefully helping you to better understand your friends situation. You could even ask questions that you might already know the answer to but if talking is going to benefit them then keep them talking.
- Do not get your personal opinions involved. This is one that I hate and it is one that prevents me from talking to people, your personal opinions should not take priority when your friend is confiding in you. What they talk about might trigger some negative emotions or thoughts for you, but during that time, your friend matters most and you’ve just got to ask yourself whether your opinions will be beneficial or not.
- Do not judge, ridicule or embarrass them.
- Stay calm for their benefit as well as yours.
- Think about your body language, it can be helpful to keep a soft eye contact, nod your head every now and again to show that you are still listening and be open with your shoulders, arms and legs.
- Allow them to talk as much as they want.
- If they show distress or confusion, reassure them by simply saying “It’s okay” and/or “Take your time”.
- Show respect.
How to finish the conversation.
So you can see that they’re coming towards the end of what they wanted to talk about and how you finish the conversation is just as important as how you begin it. They’re a few things to remember:
- Do not rush them or show that you are in any rush to get anywhere.
- Ask if there is anything you can do to help.
- Trying and finish on a happy note. All the talking might have helped them lift a huge weight off their shoulders and finishing on a happy note could help them to feel even better.
- Let them know that you are thankful and grateful that they have trusted you with such personal problems.
- Make sure they know that you are there for support and you are there any time they want.
- If you are concerned about their mental health deteriorating, let them know and check in on them every now and again.
We’re reaching a point now where mental health is getting a lot of acknowledgement but actually going to get professional help is still too hard for some people (which is understandable). Be there for your friends who aren’t ready to go to the doctors, support them, offer help and just listen to them. Anyone can be a listener and everyone can help someone who is struggling.
I hope this article offers some help,
Sending my love to you all,