When I say “struggling with mental health,” I don’t just mean “mental illness“, as someone can suffer from poor mental health without having a diagnosed (or diagnosable) illness. Mental Health and Mental Illness are two different things, though linked; much in the same way as Physical Health and Physical Illnesses or Disabilities.
Firstly, there is no rulebook on what to say. The thing is, we’re all different with different experiences and troubles that we’re dealing with, so there’s no one size fits all. However, here is my advice (as someone with Social Anxiety and who has had Depression several times; as an MH advocate; and someone who’s studied Psychology, seen therapists, and ran a support group for Anxiety and Depression).
The first thing to bear in mind is how you speak to them. Sometimes it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it. This person is not looking for pity. They’re definitely not looking to be ridiculed. They most likely just need someone to show they care. To listen, and be genuine with them. Show some compassion; it’s hard feeling like you’re not strong within your own mind so be caring in regards to that.
Say that you don’t understand if you don’t; don’t pretend you do or tell them how they feel. A key part of speaking to someone who is struggling with their mental health is to give them the space to talk to you, not the other way around. Don’t offer up solutions to their problems or an easy fix or pretend that you get it if you don’t.
It’s OK not to understand; it’s worse to pretend that you do.
Don’t brush it off as normal and say they should just “get on with things.” This is one thing I hate. Yes, there is comfort in knowing you’re not alone in how you feel; but it hurts to be told that “it’s nothing, stop moaning” basically. Mental illness is most definitely not “just nothing“. And struggling with your health in any regard is important to note and shouldn’t be brushed aside.
Don’t make them feel weird or abnormal, either. It’s OK not to understand, and it’s good that you don’t brush it off as normal. But be careful not to make a big deal out of it and scare the person. Try not to shame them as this is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t talk about mental health. Let’s remove the stigma by listening and being open, it’s that simple.
It’s important to say that you’re there to talk when they need you; that they’re not alone. Mental health issues can be very isolating. You feel trapped inside your own mind and it’s dark. Be that light in their darkness.
Don’t act like a therapist or counsellor for them, though. This is not your job and it’s not appropriate. And remember, if you can’t deal with it alone, don’t; you must protect your own mental health, too. There are services that you can call on for help (see below).
If you feel your friend or family member is really not doing well, then say you’ll go with them to a doctor. Some people are afraid or worried about seeking help for mental health reasons. This is sad to me, as we wouldn’t ever hesitate to see a doctor for say a bad cough or a pain in our leg; so the same should go for the mind and our emotional health. If your friend feels they need to go, but they’re afraid, then support them in this step.
Where appropriate, you can give advice, if you can, on ways to relax or get relief. If your friend is having a hard time, and so you’ve seen a decline in their mental wellbeing, then help them to find what could be causing it. Things like stress, overworking, relationship problems, low self-esteem, feeling stuck etc. are very normal parts of life, but can have damaging effects on our mental health. If you can give advice and help them to get back on track, then do so.
It could be a nice idea to help to ease their stress, if appropriate. Do some of their work, help with the kids, make some phone calls, and so on to relieve the pressure and tension. Bottom line, be supportive. Support them as they make their changes, or seek help for themselves.
- Don’t promise to fix it.
- Don’t pester them to talk if they feel they can’t.
- Don’t suddenly turn your back on them.
- Be careful with your wording. No: crazy, mad, weird, silly, insane. More: struggling, trouble, health decline, etc. I even struggle with wording. I think a lot of us do because it’s a new kind of conversation.
- Don’t ask leading questions (which puts ideas in their head and words in their mouth). You can ask open questions and then once they’re talking, just let them talk.
- DO NOT DIAGNOSE PEOPLE. Even if you are a paraprofessional like me, you are not qualified and it is not right to diagnose someone. Fair enough, you can express that you’re worried about someone and you will support them in seeking advice, but do not label them.
- You can suggest helpful activities or remedies that could help them, but don’t promise results or force them or make them feel bad if they don’t do it.
- Let’s all stop being so awkward about mental health! Yes, it is hard and it shapes some people’s lives; but it’s no different to any other disabilities or physical ailments. Have conversations, don’t be scared, and stop treating it as something taboo. This only furthers the problem.
- There is plenty of advice and resources from mental health and clinical professionals online. If you’re UK-based, check out the NHS website. Or charities like Mind, Heads Together, Samaritans, and more for advice, clinical help and assessments, and alternative therapies or lifestyle adjustments.
Have conversations about mental health, please. Whether you know someone suffering or not, having open, honest, natural conversations about mental health helps to change lives, save lives, and remove the stigma. Let’s do better in 2019.
If you need any help in bettering your mental health, or better coping with anxiety, depression, and stress, then my book “You’re As Mad As I Am” may be for you. Check it out here, and download a free sample to see what it’s all about.
If you want to hire me to write about mental health (or other), then don’t hesitate to get in touch!