When was the last time, if ever, you asked a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour about their mental health? Are you recoiling in embarrassment at the very thought of it? It’s a tricky topic isn’t it and I think a lot of the awkwardness we feel probably stems from the fact we don’t know what the right thing to say is. Perhaps you feel comfortable with starting the conversation but dread what you would do if the person you’re talking to actually isn’t ‘ok’? Or maybe you just don’t know how to begin to ask in the first place? Well we are all adults here and it’s time we cut the BS and educate ourselves as to what is helpful and will be supportive of our loved ones.
Today is World Mental Health Day 2019. Yes, a further chance to raise awareness of mental health. But actually, more than that, a signal for us all to start a series of small steps towards challenging remaining prejudices and stigmas around mental health, both our own and others’. Today is an opportunity for us all to learn a little more about mental health and begin something new. Take a new attitude and educate ourselves about how each other REALLY are and how to support one another.
From a personal stand point, a lot has been happening over the past couple of months and I haven’t been very well mentally, at all actually. I notice a mixture of reactions from friends and family when I try to make them aware. Some helpful, some not, but I believe every reaction comes from a place of love. I know, whenever someone reacts with a nod and a change of subject, when I tell them I have been having really dark thoughts, the only reason is to avoid making the situation worse. That said, it doesn’t make the reaction any easier to deal with at the time necessarily.
On World Mental Health Day 2019, I want to encourage everyone to push themselves, however uncomfortable it may feel, to reach out to a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour who seems a little different to normal (or you know what, even someone who isn’t acting any different, because those of us who are mentally illuminated are masters of disguise!). Ask “how are you?” but cut the BS and ask twice. I don’t mean the cordial niceties that you have at the start of a phone call, or the passing exchange at work in the corridor, between meetings. We all know how it goes, “Hey, how’s it going?”… “Fine thanks, you?”…”Yeah, good thanks.”
***THIS IS THE KEY MOMENT YOU ASK AGAIN AND THERE ARE SEVERAL INS***
Try, “How are things at work at the moment? Have you had much time for yourself?”
This will almost universally be a good starting point for anyone that works.
Try, “It must be tough to look after yourself and get enough rest with a toddler in tow all day. How are you managing that?”
Very demographic specific but given the subject of this blog, I can’t stress enough how isolating/ exhausting it can feel as a new parent. The impact on a new parent’s mental health can be significant.
I imagine the toddler statement can probably be exchanged for, ‘angst ridden teen’, ‘prepping your grown up baby, about to fly the nest to uni’ or, ‘the kids moving back in and needing your support’. Everyone goes on about parents having super powers and I do agree, but unfortunately mental illness does not discriminate – even against super heroes!
Try, “Really? You don’t seem like yourself today. Fancy grabbing a coffee and having a catch up?”
This approach is a little more direct and really shows you genuinely care and aren’t just paying lip service. Making time for someone is very meaningful and sends a strong message.
Try, “Are you sure?”
Simple, yet possibly the most effective. It gives them the space to open up.
Try, “Do you feel lonely at home alone? What do you do for company?”
This one could work for new parents, more elderly loved ones, or perhaps those out of work temporarily on the hunt for a new job. Loneliness is a real issue and the effect on mental wellness should not be underestimated.
Try, “Actually, I’ve really been struggling with my anxiety levels/ the stress of x/ feeling down. Could do with a chat if you’ve got the time?”
Quite often when I share how I’ve been feeling, others open up to me and we find that we are both one of the 1 in 4 who struggle with our mental health.
Try, “It was world mental health day the other day. I read a really interesting article about looking out for one another’s mental wellness. Just wanted to check in. How are you?”
Use today as a catalyst for the conversation!!! Why the hell not? It gives a very convenient excuse and feels like it could be a two way discussion.
…and my top five freak-out free dos and don’ts for if the person your speaking to does share that they are struggling and you think “Oh crap, what do I do now?!”…
1) Don’t try and fix them.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told to “Just let it go” or “All you need is an early night” and “You need to ask the GP for medication”. Well knock me down with a feather, why didn’t I think of that?! 🤦🏼♀️ All of these statements are well meaning and definitely have their place, but when I’m opening up to someone and sharing that I’m not coping at all, they can be patronising.
What I find really helpful is to be reminded of all the things that make me who I am despite my mental illness. For example, my Husband is always reminding me that the flip side of my anxiety is that I’m a really empathetic and caring person which he loves me for.
I saw an interesting quote/ picture thingy today on a World Mental Health Day. It read, “Broken crayons still colour”. Keep that in mind when offering your support.
2) Do let them know their feelings are valid.
Never dismiss how they are feeling and make sure you take them seriously. Validate their feelings wherever possible while ensuring you’re helping them to keep perspective. Statements such as, “It sounds like you’ve found things really difficult”, “This will pass eventually for you I hope but in the meantime I’m always here”, “Wow, you have been coping with some really hard things. I admire that you’re able to talk about it.”, “I’m so sorry you’ve been feeling that way. Do you have a plan for how you’re going to tackle things moving forward?” are all really welcome and supportive.
It can be a big worry that people will think I’m being over dramatic or worrying about unimportant things when I open up to them. Probably I am worrying about things that are unimportant to most people but being told that only heightens my anxiety. Instead, when someone just recognises that I’m feeling really shit and says they’re there to ride out the storm with me it’s far more supportive.
3) Don’t diagnose them.
Another common ‘go to’ when I tell people about my symptoms seems to be, “Perhaps you have X. I saw an interesting documentary last year about it and it sounds really similar.” or, “Oh yes, my Sister in Law has Y and that’s the same thing”. Again, really well meaning but totally unhelpful, for me anyway! There are literally hundreds of mental health disorders each with overlapping symptoms. There isn’t a one size fits all approach and what works for one person may not work for another.
Aside from anything else, suggesting that someone has X or Y could send them into a tailspin and actually set off an anxiety attack or make them feel like they are doomed to a lifetime of mental illness.
I guess this is similar to my first point but, when I open up, I’m not looking to be diagnosed and fixed by you. If I want a diagnosis I will go to a trained professional.
Try to keep in mind why the person has chosen to share how they are feeling with you. It’s because you’ve made them feel listened to. So just continue with that. LISTEN.
4) Do listen. Don’t assume.
Don’t feel like you have to fill every silence. Give the other person time to compose them self and find the right words. It can be so hard to try and explain your inner most feelings to someone else. It can be so tempting to try and help the person along and find the words for them. Personally, if someone does that to me I either often think, “what’s the point they’ll never understand” and then agree that they are right or I think, “oh shit I was going to say something far more dramatic than that” and then start back pedalling terrified that they’ll judge me.
Perhaps what’s more helpful is to listen carefully to what the other person has said and then check your understanding by replaying it back to them in your own words. For me, this is reassuring that you are really listening and also hugely validating that I have explained it in a way that you have understood. It makes me feel like I am safe and can trust you.
5) Do check in again even if they seem back to 100%
I cannot stress enough how important this one is. Don’t just check in once at a tough time of the year but check in repeatedly on rainy Tuesdays, sunny Fridays and busy Saturdays. Set reminders in your phone or make a note in your diary but do check in again… and again and again. AND ASK TWICE!!!
The fear of sounding like a broken record is real and I am often reluctant to go back to the same friend that reached out and seek support a second or third time. What works best for me is if the other person comes to me.
It’s really important that you let your loved one know that you are available to support them when they need it. Even if it’s for the 7th time that week. You see, the problem with Anxiety is that it lies to you and could be dripping poisonous little fibs into the head of your loved one telling them things like, “They’re too busy for me”, “They’ve got problems of their own, they won’t have the headspace for my insignificant worries”, “I’ve already spoken to them about this and they’ve given me their take on it, I can’t bring the subject up again”, “They’re going to think I’m a drama queen if I ask for their help”, “I don’t want them to think I’m a broken record”.
It’s a very British thing I think, this stiff upper lip. I’m always telling people, “I’ve pulled myself together” and I have a friend who’s always saying, “I’ve given myself a talking to”. That’s awesome if it’s how we really feel but sometimes we feel a pressure to say that because we think it’s not ok to be feeling the pressure or not coping or in utter mental health crisis more than once, as if we each have a quota for times we might need support or an allotted amount of good will from friends and loved ones. That’s a load of BS. When I think about my Husband, my Daughter or my best friend or my parents… in fact anyone I care about, I would far rather they spoke to me for the 100th time about the same issue / anxiety / feeling than suffer in silence and end up feeling like there was only one way out.
So, one request on this World Mental Health Day, change your attitude and start to ask how people really are. Make this small change in your thinking and approach today to make a big change to someone else’s mental wellness.