One of the most important conversations you can have with a person is the conversation about how they are faring in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. Many of us have had the experience of noticing a change in the behaviour or mood of someone we know and/or care about, yet we often do not know how to approach them to talk about mental health issues openly and respectfully. Sometimes we say nothing because we are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing or offending the person. This might mean that we don’t connect with and offer help and support to someone who really needs it.
With such a high prevalence of mental health issues in our community, this is an important conversation skill set to have. There are three considerations when planning this conversation:
APPROACH THEM SENSITIVELY – TIME, PLACE, LANGUAGE
Neither of you should feel rushed, nor be likely to be interrupted. Choose a time when you are able to dedicate your full attention to the person and you can take the time to listen and connect with them, if they need you to.
The place where you talk about mental health issues is also a factor in that you should both feel safe and private (particularly in the workplace or anywhere that the person may be sensitive about disclosing their issues to others).
The language that you use is critical. You have the best chance of engaging positively with the person if your language is respectful and non-judgemental. Inappropriate language can increase stigma and prejudice. It can also increase misunderstanding and feed negative stereotypes, and make a vulnerable person feel more isolated, misunderstood and hopeless.
One way that I recommend to have this conversation is to use a simple 3 step process:
“I’ve noticed …”
“Have you noticed …?”
Start the conversation by telling the person that you have some concerns about them and that you care about them.
Describe what you have noticed that has led to these concerns. Keep your observations objective and measurable (you should not attempt to give them a diagnosis or just tell them your judgements and opinions!). By stating the observed change in their behaviours or by simply saying, “I’ve noticed …” you need to only focus on their behaviour, and not your interpretations of what this behaviour means.
Asking them “Have you noticed …?” gives them an opportunity to connect with you if they choose to do so. It helps them to clarify if you are on the right track or if there is some other reason for their behavioural changes.
The final step in the process then involves you not saying anything: ‘Zip It!’ Many people find this the most difficult stage of the process, but it is vital that you let the person find, organise and relay their thoughts to you, if they so choose. You sometimes need to be silent for twice as long as you think is socially appropriate, to allow the person to catch up to you with their thoughts, and to decide what they are willing and comfortable to disclose in this situation.
If they do open up and talk to you about what is happening with them, your goal shouldn’t be to counsel them or come up with solutions for them (if it was that simple, they would’ve figured it out for themselves already). Your goal is to connect with them, show compassion and empathy for their distress (even if you don’t understand it – the good news is you don’t have to!), and then help them continue towards getting some support and help.
Asking them the following questions may help you with this:
- Does anyone else know how you are feeling?
- Are you currently getting any support or help with this?
- Have you thought about what might be helpful for you?
- Is there anything that you can think of that I can do to help?
If they can’t think of anything, then maybe make some suggestions. You could help them to find services and resources such as seeing a GP, or search for appropriate local services with them. If they do agree to go and see someone, it might help to offer to call and set up an appointment for them, or even to attend the appointment with them. This all depends on your relationship with the person and what is appropriate under the circumstances.
If they do not disclose anything and do not wish to have this conversation with you, then simply let them know that you are available in the future should they decide to talk. Provide them with suggestions of where they can get other support if they do not want to discuss their situation with you. If at any point you have concerns about someone’s immediate safety or risk of suicide, do not leave the person alone. Seek urgent crisis support.
In Australia call:
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Lifeline – 13 11 14
This is an edited extract from the book BLOOM! Mental health and wellbeing, by Tasha Broomhall.
Tasha Broomhall is the Director of Blooming Minds and has been providing mental health and wellbeing programs throughout Australia for 17 years. Tasha’s work has been recognised with the ICCWA Suicide Prevention Award in WA and as a finalist in the national LiFE Awards for Excellence in Suicide Prevention, for initiatives in workplace mental wellbeing. Tasha is the author of two mental health books and two journals and the Editor in Chief of Blooming Minds e-magazine.