I have been recently asked by a few friends, how they kick start a conversation about another friends mental health issues, so I thought I might share some ideas through this channel so more people can access the information. It seemed like a good time too, being Mental Health Awareness week and all.
Firstly, I think people should realize that you don’t have to be an expert on the matter on mental health to be able to help someone going through a tough time. Basically, you just need to be able to listen to the troubles and concerns that they present, and do not press judgment on them, as well as taking the time to know they are doing okay later on. A lot of people think that by telling their friend that they think they might be mentally unwell might be received poorly, or your are betraying certain grounds that are laid out for a friendship. But by telling them, you are allowing them opportunities to get the help and support that he or she needs. The reality of the situation is that mental illness is no different from physical illness and you can make a difference in their life by understanding and helping your friend throughout the course of the illness and beyond.
So, the scary part; the initialization of conversation, the asking of “are you ok?” I know it might sound obvious, but the best way is to start a general conversation; preferably somewhere that is out of the public scope. So maybe like a quiet café, or an isolated park, even just having coffee in your lounge room is a sufficient environment. You can break the conversational ice with a joke, or light hearted conversations about what has been going on lately or festivals that might be coming up that you both might want to attend. You build trust in a conversation through the use of eye contact and open and relaxed body language. In saying that though don’t pierce their soul with your gaze and don’t lean into them so much that it seems like you are playing some French kissing game. Be relaxed, sit back, cross your leg, slouch; these physical cues will help the other person relax as well. Ask an open ended question like “what’s been happening?” or “I’ve noticed that… what’s going on for your at the moment” or my personal favorite “you don’t seem like yourself lately and I was wondering if you were ok? Is there anything that is contributing?”
The next main factor is to listen without judgment. This I can not stress enough; you need to guide the conversation with caring questions not super probing ones, and give them the space and time to think and reply. (Silence in these situations is not always bad). Here you can help them understand that there are solutions available for when they want to start exploring them; asking things like “how long have you felt this way”.
Then, we can encourage action. Encourage them to take one step, like going to see their GP or doctor. Ask things like “what do you think might help this situation?” or “would you like me to make an appointment or come with you?”
This one might seem blindingly obvious, but it is one a lot of people skip over. You need to follow up with them. It is all well and good to offer the answer and help with the situation initially, but you need to care and make sure that that person is getting better not worse. If you need to, pop a note in your diary to call them once a week; ask them if they have managed to call their doctor or if they didn’t find the doctor experience helpful, urge them (do not force) to try an alternative professional because there is definitely someone out there that can help them.
Then ofcourse, we have denial. Dealing with denial is difficult, but not impossible. If they deny the problem, don’t criticize them; realize that they might not be ready to talk yet. Tell them that you are concerned about the alterations in their behaviour lately and that you care about them; ask (and I can not stress that enough to ASK) if you can enquire again next week if there is no improvement. One example of a denial confrontational response is “its ok that you don’t want to talk about it but please don’t hesitate to call me when you are ready” or “is there someone else you’d rather talk to?”
Mental health concerns are often difficult to explain, and you friend might be having trouble putting how he or she feels into words. You need to be prepared for all possible reactions, and offer emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement. In saying all this, it is important also to be sure to take time for yourself. It is important to pay attention to your own health while helping a friend; know your own limits and don’t over extend yourself.
One last thing; although you are willing to do anything and everything to help; do not try and take over your friends life. Offer support, but be patient.
Help lines you can call or give your friends to call (both provide support and advice):
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467