By Marie Vakakis
Maybe you’ve been asking yourself, how can I approach someone with depression? How can I help my friend who is struggling with anxiety? What should I do if my family member’s mental health isn’t great? How should I encourage someone I care about to seek professional help?
When someone you know and care about is experiencing a mental health crisis or experiencing mental health difficulties you want to be there for that person. At some point in our life, most all of us will be faced with such a situation. We may wonder, how do I know if someone is experiencing a mental health problem? What can I do? What do I say?
Here are some tips on how you can have a conversation with a friend or family who is experiencing poor mental health or distress.
Pick your time and place
Where and when is important. Consider a suitable time and place to talk. Pick a space you both feel comfortable in, where there are unlikely to be interruptions and is relatively private. Make sure it’s a time when neither of you is impacted by substances.
Show care and concern
Let the person know you are concerned about them and are willing to help. Speak openly and honestly about your concerns. You could start by saying something like ‘’Hey…I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed a little low lately, do you want to talk about it?”
Listen to them without judgment
Let them lead the conversation, so you’re able to talk about topics they feel comfortable discussing. It’s not the time to offer advice, simply listen and be supportive, validating their concerns. If you’re not sure what to say, you simply say something like “I don’t know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you shared it with me.” or “that sounds really tough for you, tell me more”, “that sounds really difficult. How are you coping?”
Be there for them in a supportive way even if you don’t entirely understand what they’re going through. Let them know they’re not alone. If the person doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, encourage them to discuss how they are feeling with someone else.
Ask them what type of support they would like and let them know that you will not judge them. If they want your insights, take it slow and remember not to make assumptions or judgments. Don’t give advice or insights without asking for permission first. You could try “I don’t know if this applies, but I’m wondering about…”
Things to Avoid
It’s just as important to understand what responses may be unhelpful, or damaging to someone who has opened up to you. Avoid the following responses:
Being overly positive
“Everything happens for a reason”, “Look on the bright side.”
While intentions might be well meaning, being overly positive can have a negative effect, it sends the message that you can’t sit with their distress or emotions. This can be incredibly de-validating. Positive comments, if ill-timed and uninvited, can be dismissive and shaming to someone experiencing distress or mental health difficulties.
Trivialising a person’s experience
“I know what you mean. I had a panic attack when I saw my phone bill!”
This can seem like a genuine attempt to relate to them, however kindhearted the intention is, it is misguided. It minimises their distress, fails to validate their experience and can be stigmatising.
Trying to cure the person or come up with solutions
“Have you tried running or yoga ?” “Why don’t you try meditation?”
While these practices are helpful for general wellbeing, they are not cures. Ask them what options they see for themselves. If they feel like they don’t have any ask permission to make some suggestions.
“There are people who have it much worse than you.”
Comments like this encourage comparisons, and lack empathy and validation. You should encourage them to let go of comparing themselves to others. Support them to focus on what’s best for them.
Telling them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get over it’
Mental health issues and their causes are complex. They can’t simply turn it off, it doesn’t work like that. Comments like this can cause unnecessary distress and take time away from increasing understanding and figuring out what is actually going on. Often it leaves people feeling like they have to pretend they’re fine, when they may not be.
What if the person doesn’t want help?
That’s their choice, if someone doesn’t want help, that’s OK. You could ask them about any specific reasons why they do not want to seek help. Maybe they have some assumptions or worries about support that could be addressed. You may be able help the person overcome their worry about seeking help.
If they still don’t want help. Let them know that if they change their mind in the future you’ll be there to support them. You must respect the person’s right not to seek help unless you believe they are at risk of harming themselves or others.
Marie Vakakis is counsellor and family therapist at The Therapy Hub:
If you would like to learn more you may like to consider attending a Mental Health First Aid course. Check out MHFA.com.au for more information. Seeking immediate help in Australia? Emergency: Dial 000. Visit Lifeline: Dial 13 11 14 or Visit Kids Helpline: Dial 1800 551 800 or Visit Suicide Call Back Service : Dial 1300 659 467.