You may have a friend who seems down or a family member who appears anxious. You want to ask them how they're feeling but you don't because you feel awkward bringing it up in conversation.
Why is it so hard to talk about mental health? The prevalence of stigma and discrimination toward people with mental illness makes it difficult to have a transparent conversation about how we feel. But an open dialogue about mental health can help everyone heal. Mental illness is one of the most common health conditions; in Utah, 1 in 5 people experience poor mental health. Despite the prevalence of mental illness and the likelihood it will impact you or someone you care about, a stigma still exists that leads to denying, minimizing, or ignoring a mental health concern. In fact, in Utah, fewer than half of adults with mental health issues seek the help they need.
People may not realize that there are numerous ways to treat mental illness effectively—and you can easily live a normal lifestyle by learning how to manage mental health symptoms. Brain health is just as important as any other physical health concern—it affects how you feel, think, and how you act. By openly sharing how we feel and talking about mental health daily, more people may seek professional help.
If you have concerns about a friend, colleague, or family member, how do you talk to them about their mental health? Here are a few things to consider:
Ask open-ended questions.
Don't simply say, "How are you?" Dig a little deeper and help them open up. Maybe start with, "I've noticed you haven't been yourself lately—is everything OK?". You could also try, "I'm concerned about you" or "How have you felt since your brother passed away?" Give them time to answer without interruption. Don't make jokes. Let them know they can trust you with their feelings if they're willing to share. Follow up and ask them again to keep an ongoing conversation.
Help them know they are not alone.
Sharing a story anonymously about another person you know who has experienced the same thing or sharing your own experiences can help them feel like they are not the only one struggling. Make sure you don't switch the topic of conversation to your issues. Instead, focus on their needs.
Don't interrupt, and don't be quick to suggest a solution—that may make them feel dismissed. Simply listening is sometimes all that’s needed and maybe enough. Feeling listened to can help people start to make sense of their experience and help them create a plan to seek treatment.
The person's experience and feelings may be different than yours—avoid judgmental language like "You're acting weird" or "You're crazy." Be sure to take them seriously and don't minimize how they feel by saying things like "It will pass" or "You're overreacting."
Help them figure out the next step.
Offer to do some research with them. Encouraging them to talk to their doctor is a good place to start. If they can't seek out the help they need, offer to make some phone calls on their behalf, schedule an appointment, and go with them if they need the support. Remember, it is their right to decide how they will deal with their challenges, even if you disagree with their choice.
Don't force it.
They may not be ready to open up to you. Be patient; they may just need time. The fact you reached out and tried to have a conversation will make it easier for them to open up when they are ready.
Be available to talk again.
It can be a relief for someone to share something they've kept secret, but mental health struggles are never solved with one conversation. Reach out to them again and let them know they can talk to you if they are going through a hard time.
Take care of yourself, too. Choosing to talk about mental health can make a difference in someone's life—it can even be life-saving. However, it can also bring up difficult things for you. It may be overwhelming or upsetting. Take time for yourself—get enough sleep, exercise, and seek support if you need it. Keep your boundaries in mind. Even though you want to help, it's important to know what you can and can't do for someone.