How to talk about mental health with someone you’re worried about

29 Apr 2021
By Hazel M., Freelance writer, journalist and total bookworm at Unite Students

Talking about mental health can be a sensitive topic, especially if you’re worried about someone you care about.

But while it can feel like a minefield, now more than ever, we could do with checking in with those we love and offering support in their times of need.

As a culture, we’re inherently awkward when it comes to discussing things that aren’t considered ‘our business’. Often, many of us will wait for someone to approach us with their problems, rather than pushing into their space and persuading them to open up.

Much of this comes from the idea that we’re being intrusive or believe people simply need space to sort themselves out…. but that’s exactly where the problem starts.

Sometimes, people are sending out a cry for help and they’re not being heard, or they’re too scared to ask for it in the first place. So, how can you make sure that you’re there for your friends and family when they need you most?

Below, I’ve highlighted how to start a conversation around mental health and what to do once you’re started.

Ask them if they’re okay

Starting the conversation can really be as simple as asking someone if they’re okay. It could be just the question they needed to be asked that day (but be wary about distinguishing it from everyday chit-chat).

For example, if you think that they’re giving you a generic comment in return, try tackling the question another way and make your concern known. You could ask:

  • Are you okay? You haven’t seemed yourself lately.
  • I’ve noticed you’re not going out as much as the moment. Is everything okay?
  • You’ve seemed quiet recently. Is there anything you would like to talk about?

Making your concern clear should open a gateway to a bigger conversation, beyond a general mood check-in. If they’re confused about why you’re asking these questions, be genuine. Tell them you’re worried about them and you’d like to talk.

Explain why you’re concerned and, even if they don’t want to talk about it yet, make it known that you are there when they’re ready.

To make sure they’ve got free time to talk, suggest catching up over a cup of tea or going out for a walk, so they know it’s not just a 10-minute catch-up.

Listen to what they have to say

So, you’ve asked the big question and got the ball rolling. Don’t clock out once they’ve started confiding in you.

Make sure your diary is clear so you’re not looking at the clock every five minutes and encourage them to talk. Ask them about what’s going on, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking and what they’ve been doing differently.

Then, take the time to understand what they’re going through. Everyone’s experience is unique, and you need to validate how they’re feeling.

At this point, you’ll probably want to offer advice and solutions – but now is not the time. The best thing you can do is listen and be non-judgemental. Let them take the lead and, if you’re faced with silence, give them time to gather their thoughts.

Read more: Become a better listener with these seven tips

Provide support to help them move forward

Talking about the problem will be half the battle for some people, but knowing you are there to help them will mean even more.

Once everything is out on the table, let them know that you’ll keep what they’ve said private (unless they are at risk of hurting themselves or others), and reassure them that they’re not alone.

It’s also a good time to make sure you’ve understood the situation correctly, so you can form a clearer idea of what they’re going through.

Now is the time you can start to look at ways to help them move forward, once you’ve heard everything they’ve had to say. Far from offering solutions straight off the bat, though, make sure you tackle this carefully. Things you could say include:

  • I have some ideas on things that could help but I don’t want to interfere. Would you like me to share them?
  • What have you tried already? Have you thought about…?
  • Tell me if I am getting in the way, but are there any ways I can support you?

Support them to make an action plan to move forward and help them overcome any setbacks as they go. Don’t forget to celebrate the wins, too!

Help them access useful resources

There are some amazing resources out there to help people who are struggling with mental health, and they can be great tools when you’re trying to approach someone who is struggling.

If a friend of flatmate isn’t sure where to start looking for help, some useful places to start include:

  • Student Minds is a mental health charity that offers wellbeing tips and advice, plus information about how you can get help from your university.
  • Universities also have support and wellbeing services, with trained staff who are on hand to list and help when needed. They can be contacted through your university.
  • Your local GP surgery is another resource available to students struggling with mental health.

If you want to explore other services and organisations that offer support for people who are struggling with their mental health, please take a look at our roundup of resources right here.

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When not stringing words together, can usually be found on the local beach with her cocker spaniel pup, Huey.