How to talk to someone about their mental health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

I’ve been impressed with friends I follow posting about the topic, and businesses trying to help raise awareness. I’m impressed because it’s hard to talk about mental health. The more we do it, though, the easier and more normalized it gets. The conversations become more natural, the discussions get more meaningful. As we keep talking about mental health, we reduce the stigma, and it gets easier for people to seek out help. It is so important that we talk.

Still, we don’t always know where to start. For that reason, I’ve put together a list of ideas for talking to someone you think might be struggling with their mental health (ideas for how to talk to someone else when you’re the one struggling is coming soon). This is a great list for starting those important conversations—and a great list for sharing with others.

How to talk to someone about their mental health

State the facts

A good place to start is with what you’ve been seeing that is making you concerned. Describe what you’ve noticed by sticking to the facts—just describing what you’ve observed. This might be about the current difficult circumstances someone is facing, how they’ve been acting, etc. Here are some examples:

  1. You spend a lot of time alone lately, and sometimes it seems like you’re really sad.

  2. I noticed a lot of scars on your arms.

  3. You seem really stressed out lately. You’ve been losing your temper more often.

Express love and concern

I’m guessing that if you want to talk to someone about their mental health, it’s because you care about them. Make sure they know this when you’re bringing it up. You might try:

  1. I’m bringing this up because I’ve been worried about you. You really matter to me.

  2. I’m asking because I really care about you.

Listen

This one’s pretty simple. Give the person the opportunity to talk, ask them questions for more details. And then listen to what they have to say.

Avoid one-upping the person, or turning the conversation around to be about you

If someone opens up to you about a mental health struggle, it just isn’t the time to bring up your friend who had an even harder time than they are having, or to start explaining in length your own complicated personal story. Of course it’s fine to talk about things. If you’re trying to ask about someone’s mental health, though, just try to make them the focus of the conversation. It can be incredibly invalidating to open up to someone just to be one-upped.

This also doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about your own struggles—in fact, I think being open can signal to others that talking about these things is actually okay. Just try to be sensitive of the other person as well–they’re probably feeling somewhat vulnerable.

Validate what the person is experiencing

It can be so helpful to someone who is struggling for you to just acknowledge that what they’re experiencing is real, and that it’s hard. Avoid minimizing what someone shares with you, even if you can’t personally relate, or if you think it’s not actually a big deal. Some ideas for how to do this:

  1. Wow, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot lately.

  2. That sounds really hard.

  3. With everything that’s been happening, it makes sense that you’d be having a hard time.

Avoid trying to solve it for them

Sometimes when someone talks to us about a problem, the solution seems incredibly obvious to us. But just firing off ideas for solutions can sound judgy, and it can feel invalidating to the person you’re trying to help. Instead, try what the previous few tips have suggested: Listen, ask questions, and offer sympathy and love.

Offer to brainstorm solutions with them

While it can come off wrong to just name solutions (see the previous tip), it can be useful to help the person you’re talking to come up with their own solution. They’re more likely to accept—and actually do—what they choose for themselves. Here are some ideas on how to start:

  1. What do you think would help things for you right now?

  2. What’s something that has helped in the past when you’ve felt this way?

  3. What do you feel like you need right now?

  4. Sometimes when I’m down, it helps to ___. What kinds of things do you do?

Don’t avoid the s-word

There’s a misconception that talking about suicide will plant the idea in someone’s head. Research has found this just isn’t true. There is more to be gained from bringing up the topic with someone who really might be thinking about suicide than there is from avoiding the conversation. Avoiding the topic has the possibility of someone who is suicidal being left alone without help. It’s okay to ask someone if they’re thinking about suicide. It might just save their life. Here are couple of ideas for how to do that:

  1. While we’re talking about this, I just want to check in about your safety. Have you been having any thoughts about ending your life?

  2. With all of these painful things you’ve been going through, has it ever gotten to the point where you’ve thought about suicide?

  3. Sometimes, when people are struggling with ___, they might think about ending their life. Have you been having any of these thoughts?

  4. I care about you, and since we’re talking about this stuff, I just want to check in with you. Do you ever have thoughts about ending your life?

If someone does answer yes to this kind of question, you can try a few things:

  1. Like the previous suggestions stated, listen, don’t judge, and express that you care.

  2. Try doing some problem-solving with the individual. See if you can help them come up with ideas for how to deal with their current strong emotions. Remember, this is different than simply suggesting a solution. It’s about helping the individual come up with their own ideas.

  3. Encourage them to get help. You might see if they’re open to make an appointment with their doctor or talking to the school counselor, for example.

  4. Refer them to a crisis line. You could encourage them to text the Crisis Text Line or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I’d also suggest still making it clear that you’re willing to talk with them, though, too.

  5. You can take them to the emergency room or call 911. Suicidal thoughts aren’t always an immediate emergency. If someone is very actively suicidal, though—such as if they don’t just have thoughts of suicide, but also a plan and the means needed—it is an emergency, and it’s appropriate to use emergency services.

Bring it up again

These conversations can be difficult and pretty awkward, and it’s easy for someone to be caught off guard when you ask them about their mental health. I think it’s likely to hear someone answer that everything’s fine when you do bring it up—even if it’s not. Be willing to bring it up again. I think being willing to be vulnerable and open yourself about these things can also signal to others that it’s okay if they are, too.

Like most things do, these conversations get easier with practice. We just have to keep trying. We have to talk about our own mental health, and we have to ask other people about theirs. Hopefully, that’s how the change will happen: If we all keep trying, these conversations will become easier. They’ll become normal.

Thoughts or suggestions? Please leave a comment.

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