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Starting a conversation about mental health this winter

December 12, 2022

Some people may find winter and the festive season particularly difficult this year. If you sense that a friend, colleague or family member is putting a lot of pressure on themselves, or perhaps you suspect they may be experiencing mental health-related problems, you may want to check in with them.

It’s not easy knowing how to start a conversation with someone you care about who you think might be experiencing anxiety or depression. If you’re worried, it’s important you try to have the conversation, and find out what they may be thinking and feeling. They might broach the subject first – make time to listen if they do, as it won’t have been easy for them to bring it up.

You may not be the best person for them to talk to, and that’s okay. Your role might be to help find the right person, who could be a teacher or counsellor at school, a family member (if you’re not related), or a GP. You could also signpost them to helplines and websites; we’ve shared some ideas below. Remember it’s not up to you to ‘solve’ anything.

Recognise the signs.

The signs that someone is experiencing mental health difficulties can be quite subtle; they might still be doing their usual activities. Things to look out for include spending all day in bed at the weekend, weight changes, communicating less, withdrawing from friends or family, or changed eating and sleeping patterns. You may also find reading our blog on understanding triggers helpful.

Choose the best time and way to talk.

Pick the right time to talk, when it’s calm and quiet, and neither of you needs to rush off to do something else. Will they prefer to talk face to face, or might they find it easier to call, email or message you? They might not yet be ready to accept or discuss their problems, so be patient, it may take a few ‘goes’ to get them to open up.

Ask open questions.

Rather than asking questions which will simply lead to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, phrase them in a way that gets the person talking freely. Open questions often work best. For example, instead of asking ‘does it feel like this?’ you could ask ‘can you describe to me what that feels like?’.

Try asking them questions like:

  • How long have you been feeling like this? Have you experienced it before?
  • Would you like to change how you feel? What would you like to be different?
  • Did you know you can learn ways to stop that from happening?
  • Have you thought about seeking support or treatment?

If you’re finding this difficult, you can start by asking a simple and open question, such as ‘how are you doing?’. It’s likely they’ll respond with ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m okay’ but if you’ve noticed signs suggesting otherwise, try repeating or rephrasing the question.

Use the same language they would use: if they say ‘my nerves are bad’, keep on using this term. Don’t make assumptions – you many have an idea what the problem is but avoid asking leading questions.

Validate how they’re feeling.

It can be distressing to see someone you love experience difficult emotions and you will want to protect them from that. It’s important to acknowledge and let them feel whatever they feel, without judgment. Let them know it’s okay to be angry, sad, anxious or scared, and that it’s part of being human.

Letting them know that you’re there if they do need to talk about anything can create a supportive and open conversation. For example, have a look at this interaction between a father and his teen daughter, which is being shown on TV at the moment.

Normalising their emotions might help by telling them that while the exact way they feel is unique to them, lots of people experience the same thing and they’re not on their own. They may have certain concerns about how they’re feeling. Try to make it clear that it isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem will continue.

Look after yourself.

It’s a good idea to be prepared that what you hear could possibly shock you or lead to feelings of guilt or worry that you’ve contributed to the problem. Try not to take what they say personally; focus on them in the moment but make time to discuss this with someone else later on if you’re struggling to move past it.

Helpful resources.

If they want to do something about how they feel, you could encourage them to talk to their GP, or help them to explore resources such as blogs, books and well-being podcasts. Where appropriate, you can plant the seed that they might think about having therapy. For example, if they’re feeling anxious and down, typed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with ieso might help them manage how they’re feeling.

If someone you know has confided in you about feeling low or worried, and you can see it’s impacting on their life, please do talk to them about it if you feel you can. It might take time for them to open up – and that’s ok. Simply having a bit of knowledge about how therapy works and helping them to address any preconceptions and explore the possibility of treatment could have a really positive effect.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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