It has been a tough few years, hasn’t it? And the result is that more people are dealing with some sort of #mentalhealthcondition. In 2020, 21% of U.S. #adults experienced #mentalillness, and 5.6% experienced a serious #mentalillness such as #bipolardisorder, according to the Substance Abuse and #MentalHealthServices Administration. One of them may be someone you love. You may even feel like you need to help them get the care they need, but how do you even start that conversation?
First, you have to listen without judgment. It could be the best way to show your support. And, if you eventually want them to open up and start talking freely about how they feel, well, that takes trust, time, and a little bit of tact in your approach. “It’s important to set the stage,” says #psychiatrist Rhonda Mattox, M.D., a board-certified #physician and life coach based in Little Rock, AR. “Initiate these conversations in privacy where your friend [or family member] isn’t afraid of being judged by someone who might overhear, or concerned that you are attempting to embarrass them.”
Similarly, be prepared to ask for honest feedback that you’re going to truly hear and digest without passing judgment—or offering unsolicited advice right away. Dr. Mattox likes to begin with open-ended questions or observations. “Whatever you do, don’t start with ‘We need to talk,’” she says. “That’s a sure fire way to close down a conversation or set your person into defensive mode.” If you’re looking for a few specific thought starters you can use with a loved one, you’ve come to the right place.
Strategies to start the #mentalhealth conversation with someone you love
These approaches can help you go from a surface level chat to a deeper conversation to help your loved one feel emotionally supported, and like they have the resources they need for their well-being.
Approach #1: The casual check-in
Break the ice by saying something like: “Hey, I haven’t talked with you in a while; I just wanted to check in to find out how you’re doing—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” suggests Nkem Okakpu, Ph.D., a licensed professional #counselor and owner of The Greater Zen Counseling & Wellness House in Clifton, NJ. Use this casual check-in versus the ever popular “How are you feeling?” line of questioning, which can be overwhelming or off-putting to someone unless a space of vulnerability has already been established.
Making the conversation a little broader may ease the #anxiety your loved one might feel about opening up about their emotions. While they might be slow to start sharing concrete details about their current state of mind, know that you don’t have to unpack everything in one conversation. “A motivator I tend to keep in mind is we need to learn the patterns that made us, so we don’t let them break us,” says Okakpu. This, of course, takes time but is well worth the effort, and sometimes talking about the good things in life can help a loved one feel comfortable sharing their struggles, too.
Approach #2: The universal touch-base
“Another conversation might be to acknowledge how hard the #pandemic has been on everyone,” says Sarah Berger, Ph.D., a licensed clinical #psychologist and director of Capital Psychological Services in Chevy Chase, MD. “Something like ‘#COVID has really been tough on everyone. Can you tell me what it has been like for you?’” Because this questioning construction is all-encompassing—versus pointed directly at your loved one specifically—this could help open up the lines of communication in general, leading to more intimate sharing later in your talk.
However, you may want to avoid references to #COVID directly if it’s a known trigger for someone in your circle. That said, you can apply the idea behind this touch base to anything that feels like a shared or collective experience, from major events on the world stage to something more local but still pervasive.
Approach #3: The direct observation
Your goal here is to discuss something concrete about the way your loved one is acting. Hone in on a general #behavior like having low energy, being withdrawn, or even seeming sad. That said, it’s crucial you don’t put words or feelings into someone else’s mouth. Dr. Mattox recommends using “I” statements to kick off the conversation.
She suggests saying something like: “I don’t want to be intrusive, yet I have noticed that you have not been yourself lately. I’m available to listen if you need a safe space.” Another example, she says, might be: “I’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot on your mind. I have a non-judgmental ear to offer if you would like someone to listen.”
Berger likes using direct observations as conversation starters because they encourage sharing in a way that feels safe to an individual’s own comfort level on any given day. “This kind of statement lets the person know they are being seen and that you are there for them,” says Berger. “The person can share as little or as much as they want.”
Approach #4: The strategic share
A final conversation starter might be to share your own experience, but you have to tread very lightly in this realm because this conversation isn’t about you—it’s about your loved one. Berger suggests saying something like, “Last year when I was struggling at work, I found it helpful to talk to a #therapist,” and then listening to see where your friend or family member wants to take the conversation from there.
Dr. Mattox suggests a similar thought starter, where you talk about a tough time in your own life: “I have been through something a bit similar. I don’t want to unload on you, but when I was going through it, I found it helpful to know I wasn’t the only person who had a tough time and that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.” The key here, again, is asking for permission to share versus just giving unsolicited advice. Really, this line of conversation is a means of getting the other person to share their struggles, so keep your own commentary to a minimum.
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
Order your copy of James Donaldson’s latest book,
Celebrating Your Gift of Life:
From The Verge of Suicide to a Life of Purpose and Joy
What to do if they won’t talk to you
If you encounter resistance, don’t give up. Instead, Dr. Mattox suggests circling back with a slightly different approach a few days later, such as introducing the idea of conversation as more of a writing exercise. To do this, she suggests offering a notebook and saying something like: “I saw this beautiful journal, and I thought of you. I notice you haven’t felt much like talking. I sometimes feel better after I write and get my worries and concerns onto paper.”
You then can continue with the rationale behind why you are gifting the journal: “Sometimes the act of getting it out of your head and onto paper helps me put things into perspective,” Dr. Mattox suggests saying. Always end with a conviction like, “I hope this helps,” to express your concern. One day, maybe your loved one will feel comfortable sharing those thoughts they put to paper, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Ultimately, your loved one might not want to talk to you directly on any given day, even if you use one of these approaches that’s designed to bring down walls. In that case, Berger says you could always share a text hotline with your person. “It lets them know you care and offers them anonymous help,” she says.