Usually, I would start a post like this with facts and stats to back up why it’s needed, but honestly, I feel like that would be wasting our time. We all know that mental health issues are common, and if we don’t experience a problem personally, I guarantee you that you have someone in your world who does.
And if you’re sitting there and saying, “No, none of my friends or family has ever had an issue”, well… how can I say this politely? You couldn’t be more wrong; you just don’t realise it.
So, let’s skip the statistics and get down to business.
Helping a loved one who is struggling with their mental health is up there with some of the most common questions I’m asked by my clients, people on my courses/workshops or the general public who know what I do for a living and how passionate I am about mental health.
“Pete, my *insert family member or friend here* is in a really bad place, I want to help them, but I don’t know what to say”
Or words to that effect, and you know what, I get it, it’s not easy for anyone, including me with my loved ones, and I literally teach people mental health support. Why?
Familiarity can put up barriers.
Here’s the thing, when we’re speaking to someone that we care about, we’re already emotionally invested in that person just by the nature of our relationship with them. Which can make this kind of conversation more difficult. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t support people we care about, far from it, but just to recognise that it can be more complicated than someone at work or a distant acquaintance.
So yeah, it’s not easy, and unfortunately, when it comes to this, I don’t have the answers for you because it depends so much on the circumstances, your relationship and what has happened previously.
OK, so I’ve just spent ages telling you why this conversation is more challenging, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There are a few things you can do to not only make it easier for everyone but also be much more helpful to that person
The real work starts well before you even have this conversation, and that is to learn about mental health generally, mental health conditions and what support is out there. You don’t need to become a psychiatrist or a therapist to do this.
The idea is to understand mental health better, why people experience issues, what the signs & symptoms are and what support is out there. This means that when it comes to having THAT conversation, you’re confident and comfortable doing so and you can offer better support to that person rather than trying to speak about something that might otherwise feel completely foreign to you.
Mind if I give you an example?
Loved one “I feel so on edge, I’m terrified that something awful is going to happen all the time”. Before learning the basics, you might say, “Don’t be silly. Nothing bad will happen, ” which isn’t helpful. After getting some basic knowledge, you might identify that this sounds like anxiety say, “That sounds really exhausting. Have you spoken to anyone about this? I know a great resource that can help.”
See the difference there? One is taking a wild stab in the dark at trying to help; the other is using your knowledge to be empathic, reassuring and helpful.
Let’s say someone you care about clearly isn’t doing great at the moment, they might be on edge, irritable, dismissive, and lack enjoyment, and you want to approach them to help; how do you do it?
A good rule here is to focus on ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ so
“I noticed that…” “I wondered if you’d like to chat” “I’m worried about you.”
As opposed to
“You are”, “You should”, “You need to.”
It’s important not to over-complicate this and say whatever feels natural to you. Simply asking how they are feeling is a great start. One issue is that people often give meaningless answers like “I’m fine” or “Living the dream”, which either means nothing or hides how they are actually feeling. A tip I often use is to ask twice, for example;
“How are you?
“How’s life treating you at the moment.”
“How are you?”
*Chat about literally anything for a few minutes*
“How are things going?”
Both create an opportunity to push past the smokescreen and get a more honest answer.
We’ve all been here, and it’s REALLY frustrating. Someone asks for help with something, you suggest different options to them, and they have a reason why every single one of them wouldn’t work, or they say ‘tried it’ when it’s usually something that needs more than trying once.
The first thing to point out here is we can’t force someone to do anything. Maybe if you’re a parent and your kid is under 18, but even then, ideally, we want this to be their choice.
What you can do to help with this is learn some common objections and why they may not be entirely accurate (or complete shite in many cases); here’s some for free.
“Talking wouldn’t work for me” or “What good would talking do?” – Well, there’s an entire field of medicine (psychiatry) and science (psychology) based on the premise of the power of talking. We don’t know what we don’t know, and having a simple conversation can open up doors we didn’t know were there.
“Anti-depressants would just make me numb/a zombie” – No, they won’t. No antidepressant does that. They reduce your symptoms and raise your mood, so you’re in a better place to talk to someone about it.
“I don’t want to be a burden” – This is literally why doctors, charities, therapists and support organisations exist. To talk to you about what’s going on and help, and you’re not burdening anyone.
“I’ve tried it before; it didn’t work” – This is often said about therapy. And yeah, sometimes patient and therapist don’t gel, sometimes a therapist has an approach that doesn’t work for you or maybe you weren’t in the right place for it at the time. But there’s over 16,000 therapists in the UK, all with different approaches, personalities and ways of working – it’s a sure thing that someone out there can help.
Back in basic training, my corporal used to constantly remind us that we had two eyes and one mouth for a reason because we should be listening twice as much as we speak. And he’s right, especially when it comes to supporting other people.
We often spend too much time worrying about what we’re going to say when what we should be doing is listening. Give the person 100% of your attention (get rid of unnecessary distractions), listen to every word they say and try to understand them before you want them to understand you.
This is something I need to do regularly because people often share their challenges with me. It’s a given that it’s going to have an impact, especially when speaking about things like suicide, abuse, neglect, self-harm and bereavement. They’re not easy things to talk about, so don’t think you’re above getting help just because the original issue is with someone else, it’s expected that it impacts you, and it’s important that you do something about that, especially if you want to continue to be there for that person.
We’re not expecting miracles, and what I’ve written here is really just scratching the surface; I run a 4-hour workshop on supportive conversations. Even then, I find myself wanting to add more to it to cover everything off.
Everything might be fine now, and you’re thinking, “I don’t need to worry about this”, and you know what? I’m thrilled that everything is good right now, but life happens, and things change, so learning some basic skills for when life throws a curveball your way will make things much easier – or potentially lifesaving – further down the line.
I’ll leave you with one final bit of advice when supporting someone who is struggling – It’s not about what you say to them; it’s about how you listen.