Knowing how to approach a conversation like this with a friend or loved one can be difficult and sometimes daunting as you’re wanting to provide love and support but are cautious of saying the wrong thing. From the very start, this is an important fact to acknowledge; you’re wanting to provide love and support. You come from good intentions and want to help see the person you care about feel better.
So here are five starting points to take into account when talking with someone about their mental health.
The time and place that the conversation takes place are incredibly important, as it must be at a point where you can spend the time for however long the conversation needs to go for without having to rush through due to other commitments, and similarly for the person you’re talking to. This also means you both need to be relaxed and calm in order to establish a safe environment that both of you feel comfortable sharing in.
If you both have the time to talk and are free of stresses and tensions, the openness this creates between you forms the kind of safe environment that can prove to be a fundamental support option and significant help towards recovery.
After you’ve been able to open the conversation, don’t talk for a bit, besides to reassure them to keep going if they hesitate on a subject, allow them to freely offload what’s going on in their head. It can be instinctive to try and reassure through phrases like “I get what you mean”, but stay conscious of this as it can come across as invalidating of the person’s own mental health issues if you say you understand what’s going on when even they don’t. Similarly, don’t try to offer solutions at first, just listen. This shows you have no judgement and are purely there to offer a safe space for this person to release what they’ve been feeling. Just provide a set of ears for them to trust and confide in with the swamping thoughts in their head.
This can often be the most difficult part, as it’s hard to know exactly what to say when someone is revealing such personal and emotional details. As briefly mentioned, it is often instinctive to reassure by saying you understand or comprehend what this person is going through. However, this can come across as devaluing their experiences by saying what they’re going through is easy to understand and they are therefore somehow insignificant for not understanding it. So instead of this, bring them back to and reassure them of the more immediate and significant facts; you are there for them. No matter how difficult things may become, you are always there for them, and with them. Grounding the situation in this way can be such a powerful and important message, as even when their mental health fluctuates through its ups and downs they can always come back to the facts; you are there for them.
It’s important to convey the feeling of teamwork, the fact that they’re not alone and that you’ll work through this together. Again, you’re not saying you understand it necessarily, but just that you are a reliable and trustworthy go-to person who is always going to be there to help fix things. Framing this as a team effort helps them to know they’re not facing everything alone and can always turn to you for support.
Finally, this is not a one-time conversation. In order to support someone experiences mental ill-health you have to prepare to be dismissed and rejected some of the time while trying to get them to talk about what they’re experiencing. They’re not always going to want to share and might share more openly sometimes than others. This is ultimately assisted by picking your battles, knowing when to persist and when to let things slide, so that you don’t become too intense. Similarly, talk about other topics too! Don’t let a mental health issue define the person you’re supporting and don’t let it become the central factor of your relationship. Being someone they can talk to about normal stuff will help build security for them to talk at a deeper level.