How to Have a Helpful Conversation About Mental Health

Mental health, or more specifically mental illness, is a topic we don’t spend enough time talking about. There’s still so much stigma attached to mental illness that we often just avoid the subject entirely.

It’s easy to talk about a purely physical ailment, such as a broken bone because we can see it. We simply look at an X-ray, and we can see the problem. More importantly, there’s an external force we can blame, such as a car accident. Mental illness is different because we can’t always see the symptoms. Often, we have a sense that something is wrong, but it’s very hard to pinpoint the problem. Also, mental illness doesn’t usually come with an external force for us to blame.

But it’s vital that we learn to have respectful and responsible conversations about mental health. We can’t hope to deal with it if we don’t face it head-on. The sad truth is that many people don’t receive the help they need because others are too afraid to talk to them about it. It’s certainly not an easy conversation to have. And it becomes even harder when we need to speak to a loved one about their mental health. But we owe it to them to broach the subject, even though it’s uncomfortable.

How to Prepare Yourself for the Conversation

It’s important to prepare yourself for the conversation. Read as much as you can about mental health so that you’ve got a better understanding of the topic in general. Decide ahead of time what you’d like to achieve by having the conversation, and write those goals down. This can help you choose a starting point for the conversation.

How to Start the Conversation

One of the hardest parts of the whole process is starting the conversation. If your friend or family member starts the conversation themselves, you can simply follow their lead. However, if you have to broach the subject, you can start off by asking a few leading questions, such as “I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?” Remember to be gentle and sincere. If your loved one thinks you’re grilling them, they’re not likely to open up to you.

What to Talk About

There are a few issues you need to discuss with your loved one once you’ve started the conversation. The most important way to ensure that the conversation is productive is to make sure they know that you care about them and want to help. Tell them that you’re concerned and willing to support them.

The next issue you need to talk about is treatment. Start by reassuring your friend or family member that there is help, and mental health problems are treatable. Then try to find out whether they’re already getting some form of treatment. If not, encourage them to do so, and offer to help them find the treatment or care they need.

What to Do and What Not to Do

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As we’ve already pointed out, mental health is not a simple issue. Many people are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing when talking about the subject. The following guidelines will make it much easier for you to have a helpful conversation with your friend or family member.

What to Do

  • Prepare yourself for the conversation
  • Choose an appropriate time and place to have the conversation
  • Be compassionate
  • Be empathetic
  • Be respectful
  • Be encouraging
  • Listen to them very carefully
  • Ask how they are
  • Acknowledge their feelings
  • Try to start sentences with “I,” such as “I’m concerned…”
  • Encourage them to take care of themselves by sleeping enough, eating well and getting enough exercise
  • Discourage them from using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate
  • Encourage them to reach out to someone immediately if they consider harming themselves
  • Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them
  • Offer to provide useful information, such as books, if they’d like it
  • Offer to make an appointment for them to see a healthcare professional of their choice
  • Offer to take them to the appointment too
  • Take care of yourself too

What Not to Do

  • Don’t pressure them if they aren’t willing to talk immediately
  • Don’t be judgmental
  • Don’t use words such as “crazy”
  • Don’t dismiss what they’re going through by saying things such as “Snap out of it”
  • Don’t minimize what they’re going through by telling them that other people have worse
    problems than they do
  • Don’t blame them for their mental health problems
  • Don’t avoid talking about self-harm or suicide
  • Don’t get angry
  • Don’t blame yourself for their mental health problems

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s mental wellbeing, it’s crucial that you talk to them about it. You may help them avoid lots of needless suffering. Even though it can be a tough conversation to have, remember that when you treat people with mental health issues with empathy, compassion and respect, you are already making a difference in their lives.

Have you had to talk to a loved one about their mental health? How did you go about it? Do you think it was helpful?

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