06 Nov HOW TO TALK TO A LOVED ONE ABOUT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH
Being open about our mental health is not a given. Many people living with mental health concerns and emotional pains, or wounds, feel uncomfortable sharing their experience with those around them, and understandably so. Discussions around mental health may still be considered ‘taboo’ for some folks.
Despite mental health being a difficult conversation, the reality is that an estimated 1 billion people around the world have concerns about their mental health. During COVID, these conversations may be unavoidable, as families and households are spending more time together in close proximity.
Why is Mental Health Taboo?
Mental health can be a difficult topic for people for a variety of reasons. Depending on our race, gender, upbringing, religious background, world views, many factors can affect how we relate to and view mental health.
I’m sure many can relate to the idea of men having to present as ‘macho’, as the ‘bread-winner’ and being ‘strong’, while women may relate to the stereotype of having to present as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘agreeable’ or ‘passive’.
These stereotypes impact the way society views and accept one another.
When we do not fit into some of these narrow views of how we “should” identify or present ourselves, it may make others feel uncomfortable, and we may end up feeling unaccepted, or unwanted.
Our mental health is affected by these societal values and standards, but some of the challenges we face can also be caused by them.
For example, many of us struggle with our mental health when we feel a loss of purpose, community, or understanding. As humans, we need purpose. It’s an evolutionary survival trait. We seek a community for the same reason. There is safety in numbers and we crave to be understood, accepted and welcomed in our groups.
When people hold cultural, religious, gender-related biases within their values, it can create a disconnect in our ability to feel understood and to feel as though we relate to those around us.
These biases, that to a certain degree, we all have, can make us feel uncomfortable when discussing certain topics, such as mental health.
If I was brought up by a family and community who value traditions in gender and hetero norms, and I was born as someone who was gay, for example, I may struggle to come to terms with who I am, but more so, those around me may not be willing to listen to or try to relate to who I am.
Essentially… mental health is taboo because we make it so.
How to Talk to Someone Struggling with their Mental Health
Before opening a dialogue with someone about their mental health, it’s worth taking a step back and asking ourselves these questions.
Can I put aside my opinions, which have been formed through my very unique life experiences, to try to approach this situation from a place of open understanding and empathy?
In other words, can I appreciate that my opinions and values have been shaped by my very unique experiences throughout life and that those experiences differ wildly from those around me? We are all individuals with very different lives. What may seem normal or a given to one person may be completely foreign to another.
Am I ready to listen and be there for this person regardless of my opinions around mental health?
How can we respond when someone shares something with us that we cannot relate to or understand? When we can’t relate to an experience, it can be really difficult to listen with intent. If someone is approaching us sharing a hardship, and we don’t recognize the situation as a hardship, that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult for the person in question.
For example, if someone loses their pen and has a panic attack, someone who has never experienced this feeling may consider that person is ‘over-exaggerating’ or ‘crazy’. However, for this person, they may be experiencing obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Their perspective may be that they’ve just lost the item that made them feel safe and in control of their anxiety. Not everyone can relate to this feeling, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And just like people with a herniated disk, people with obsessive-compulsive symptoms need to be given time and support to recover.
During COVID, it is particularly important to be mindful of respecting one’s personal space. Conversations can get heated, and living in close proximity to our loved ones can cause discussions to escalate without an escape or a break. If you notice a conversation becoming confrontational or unproductive, honour yourself and your loved one by taking a step back from the conversation, revisiting it at a time when the people involved are ready to speak calmly and listen with intent and empathy.
Am I Mentally Prepared to Listen about this Person’s Experience with Mental Health?
It’s important to check in with our own mental health before opening our hearts and ears to anyone else. It’s like the aeroplane safety videos say, put on your own safety equipment before helping others, because you won’t be much help if you don’t.
Simple Rules to Abide By
Listen. Many people with mental health concerns are in need of someone to share with. A lot of the time, talking things through and verbalizing our anxieties can put them into perspective. Take some of the pressure off of yourself, you don’t have to have any answers to fix your loved ones mental health. Offering your time and attention, showing you care and are there to support them, is enough.
Mirror their tone. It’s super common for people to use humour as a defence mechanism. If the person you’re talking to is laughing about their own mental health, it could be that they are doing it to cope through the conversation, in which case, if it comes naturally to you and you’re comfortable with the person, you can laugh too. If they aren’t laughing though, neither should you.
Be careful with recommendations. ‘Oh you have X? I’ve heard Y is the BEST for treating X!’ – If they’re talking to you about X, they’ve probably heard of Y. Heck, they may even have tried it already! Recommendations are fine and may be appreciated, but just recognize that the person hearing your suggestions may…
Not be ready to hear it;
Not be ready to take the information in;
Already have tried it;
Just want to talk and share their frustrations.
Unless you’re a healthcare provider with experience in the mental health space, you likely aren’t going to know enough to be able to recommend specific treatments. By all means, offer help in researching treatment plans, but you shouldn’t assume to know what is best for the individual unless you have had formal training.
Remember, we’re all different! What worked for a friend in a similar situation may not work for everyone. We all have unique reasons for our mental state, and we all have different responses to types of therapy, treatment and medication.
How to Access Support
If you’re doing research looking for suggestions for your loved one for treatment, here’s what you need to know.
Currently, worldwide, access to in-person therapy is limited due to COVID. In certain areas, in-person therapy may be an option. For the areas that it’s not, there are online treatment plans available.
Online therapy allows people to get help from the comfort of their homes, which for many, is incredibly convenient in 2020.
The best form of treatment known for folks who are experiencing obsessive-compulsive symptoms is a form of therapy known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This approach is available online as well as in-person.
There are also self-help practices that people with mental health concerns may wish to try, such as meditation or breathing exercises, but depending on the severity of the challenges or symptoms, seeking professional help may be more suited.
When speaking with a loved one about mental health, remember to approach the conversation with empathy and patience. Seeking help for our mental health is tough, and the person struggling may need time before they can ask for the help they may need. Discuss options with them in an open-minded way without expectations.
If your loved one has shared that they are planning to harm themselves or others, seek urgent support by calling 911, going to your nearest Emergency Department, or by reaching out to HERE 24/7.
Written by: Gabie Lazareff
Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.