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Tips for Talking about Mental Health

Today is Time to Talk Day, which encourages everyone to talk about mental health with the aim of breaking down stigma. Talking openly about mental health is beneficial for everyone, as the flow of information challenges stereotypes and helps people with mental health problems feel supported. However, since mental health is still a sensitive subject, it can help to be prepared – here are some simple tips to get talking about mental health.

1. Choose the time and place carefully.

Trying to talk about anything important when you feel pressured is best avoided. Choose a time when you can sit down and chat without checking the clock. Make sure the environment is relaxed – at home is ideal for some people, but a café or park may suit others because it avoids interruptions. You may also need to take other factors into account; if the person you are talking to has anxiety, for example, they may not feel comfortable in a public place.

Please note: I will refer to conversations as taking place between you and one other person throughout this blog post, because it’s easier to start talking about mental health on a one-to-one basis. However, these tips still apply when there are more than two people involved in the dialogue.

2. Remember that everyone is individual.

Our experience of mental health is unique. Even when people have been diagnosed with a specific mental illness, their symptoms can manifest in different ways and each person will have their own thoughts and feelings about their mental health problems. Don’t make assumptions about people’s experiences and ask them to elaborate if you don’t understand something.
Also take people’s personalities into account: some appreciate a direct approach, whereas others need to be drawn out. Be sensitive to their preferences and responses to what you say. However, remember some people will always find conversations about mental health uncomfortable and unless they become distressed, it’s usually better to talk than remain silent.

3. Listen without judging.

Few people listen to others without interrupting – we tend to express our reactions vocally, agree or disagree as soon as something is said and jump in to offer advice or opinion. This is normal behaviour, but it’s not helpful when having conversations about serious topics. Let the other person talk freely and if the flow falters, use questions to prompt them to elaborate or explain.
You may hear things which seem shocking or upsetting to you, but try not to respond negatively. If you think someone is at risk of harming themselves, consult a mental health professional or call 999 if the danger is immediate. However, bear in mind that talking about subjects like self-harm and suicide doesn’t mean the person will harm themselves. In fact, being able to talk to others about such difficult aspects of mental illness can reduce the likelihood of someone harming themselves, since they feel supported and less isolated.

4. Ask how you can help.

Many people simply don’t know how they can help when someone has mental health problems. If you are talking to someone who is affected, ask how you can support them. Often, just being there and listening is a huge help. Knowing someone cares enough to call or text makes a big difference.
If you have mental health problems, ask the other person how you can help them understand what you are going through and how they might help. For example, by telling them about your symptoms when you are experiencing bad episodes and what you struggle with during those times. Don’t feel guilty for needing support – most people hate feeling that they can’t do anything for you and like being able to help.

5. Be kind, compassionate and empathetic.

Talking about mental health boils down to this final tip. Making the effort to try to understand someone’s experience of mental health and offering unconditional support means a lot. Many people with mental health problems face judgement, negativity and prejudice all too often – we need to offset those encounters with kindness and empathy.

If we keep talking about mental health in positive ways, hopefully people with mental health problems in future will feel fully supported and we can finally end the stigma surrounding mental health.

This blog post was written by Hayley Jones, writer at Resurfacing and Rewriting and dedicated volunteer at The Project.

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