Starting a conversation about mental health
When it comes to talking about our mental wellbeing, opening up can feel daunting and difficult. Many of us worry that the conversation will be awkward and uncomfortable, we’ll say the wrong things, or we’ll come across as rude. Some of us often feel we are burdening another with our woes.
Being open, and having a support system in place for when things do get tough can be so beneficial for everyone, and especially those struggling with their mental health. When we talk about how we’re feeling, whether it’s tearful and anxious, irritable and low or even just doing alright, we often feel that we’re not alone and our mental load is lightened.
How to start a conversation
When we muster up the courage to talk about our feelings, there are a couple of things we can do to make it a little easier for ourselves.
Choose the right place and time - somewhere we find comforting, a cosy quiet coffee shop (when restrictions are lifted), a leafy park walk or our own homes. Find a time that suits us both, talking to our friends, while they’re juggling their baby, the hoover and sprinklings of cereal, or if we call right in the middle of a zoom-meeting might leave us feeling like we’re bothering the other person. Organising a time and place can help us to prepare to talk, but also ensure that we won’t be overlooked or feel like we’re dumping on them.
Text first - picking up the phone, meeting up in person or gathering with a group of friends (when we can) might make us recoil into our shells, it can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking. Try texting first, it can be really helpful when we’re not feeling so confident, as it gives us time to decide what and how to say what we want to say without nervously waffling and skipping over the important details.
Choose the right person - now this can be easier said than done, and this kind of conversation might lead to some eye-opening moments about who we surround ourselves with but that’s ok. Our support networks are made up of different people for different reasons. As this topic can be a little heavy, possibly emotional, but ultimately not easy, having someone we trust, feel supported by and listened to will make the whole thing feel a bit easier.
How to help someone start a conversation
Even with plans in place, actually starting a conversation about how we feel can be hard, and as a listener we might be left thinking - ‘what if I don’t know what to say? What if they say something I don’t understand? What if we feel the same way?’ so here’s what we can do to help:
Ask twice - research shows that asking “How are you?” can often prompt no more than an “I’m fine” (a wellbeing curse word). And further showed that over three-quarters of us would respond with “I’m fine”, even when struggling . Asking twice helps us feel like someone actually wants to know and can help us open up to the less than fine feelings that are truly brewing.
Depersonalise - talk about hypothetical situations, use fake names, use scenarios. For example, if someone we know is not doing so well, but they’re struggling to say why or how, create a scenario together to help illustrate or explain how we are, or say we’re talking ‘about a friend’ but with that sneaky nod that lets the other person know the ‘friend’ is not really ‘a friend’ (it’s us). Taking away the personal element can make it a little easier to open up - but make sure to be on the same page so we don’t get on a tangent about ‘Susan the green grocer’ instead of our actual friend.
Self-disclosure - is a term used in therapy when a therapist might divulge their own experiences. As a therapist it's a skill to know when and how, but as a friend or colleague speaking up about our own struggles or feelings can be reassuring, knowing we’re not the only ones. As long as we don’t turn the entire chat to ourselves, and keep it equal!
What to expect from being open
We might come away from a conversation feeling lighter, brighter and with a bit more bounce in our step, or we might come away feeling totally rotten - awkward, anxious and uncomfortable. This is completely normal.
Our heads tend to fill with concerns over whether we said the right thing, did they understand, did they believe us? It is highly unlikely that anyone we speak to walks away thinking anything but - “I wish I could do something to help” - and if they don’t it’s good to know we don’t always get the reaction we wanted, but it has no reflection on us, our experiences or how we're feeling inside.
We might feel really awkward about going back to that person, whether it's for another catch-up, in a work meeting, to borrow that pair of shoes or head to play footie together. That first conversation after can be just as daunting as we might worry what they think of us. But the truth is they are probably glad to hear from us again. Bite the bullet and ask to borrow those shoes or go to the game. It’ll take both minds off the previous conversation and things will swing back to normal.
If we don’t feel comfortable talking with a friend, colleague, family member or anyone close to us, seek a professional. The best thing about speaking with a professional (other than their repertoire of skills for helping people in exactly this manner) is they don’t know us, we can tell our story exactly how it is, and they’ll listen without judgement and with empathy for everything we say. This can help us to feel heard, understood and cared for - even by a stranger!
Gentle reminder: Talking isn’t easy, even for those who have been in therapy talking about it for years (speaking from experience), but any effort we can stir up to talk honestly about how we are can be anywhere between mood-lifting to life-changing, so have a go! We never know, the person we talk to might just say “I hear and feel that, pal!”
1. National Survey. (2018). The research was conducted by Censuswide with a nationally representative sample of 2,012 general respondents.