How to Have the Awkward—But Necessary—‘How’s Your Mental Health?’ Convo
September 10, 2018
Mental health—what comes to mind when you think about it?
This word might resonate with you, especially if you either know someone who deals with a mental illness or you deal with one yourself. According to the World Health Organization, over 400 million people worldwide are affected by a mental illness. Of those people, two-thirds will never seek help.
Talking about mental health, unfortunately, isn’t an everyday conversation—and it can feel tough to open up, especially with loved ones.
But the truth is, the “Are you alright?” convo doesn’t need to be painful—and it needs to be had. Why: The people closest to someone are often the first to notice any mental health shifts. Friends are often the first to recognize the signs of an emerging mental health problem, and an estimated 76 percent of young adults report turning to a peer for support in a time of need.
“Friends always notice first,” Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist and content creator on YouTube, tells Shine. “People in our lives that see us every day are the ones that are going to notice the slight changes we think we’re hiding.”
That’s why Morton’s part of the Ad Council’s Seize the Awkward campaign, which aims to break the stigma around mental health conversations and help people learn how to have those important talks with their friends who may be struggling.
Here's, four tips to help you have those important conversations with your friends.
1. Know the Power of Your Words
You have the power to change someone’s life.
Morton realized the power of her words when she recently received a handwritten letter from a mother. In the letter, the mom explained that her son Chris was having a hard time with his sexuality and was a victim of bullying. He was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, which the mother would have never known about if her son hadn’t opened up to his guidance counselor. The reason he got help: He’d seen Morton’s YouTube videos encouraging people struggling to talk to someone.
Morton’s words completely changed the course of someone’s life, and you can do the same.
Kati Morton, licensed marriage and family therapist and content creator on YouTube.
If you notice your loved one’s behavior has changed or they’re no longer interested in the things they once loved, that's a sign that they may need your help. By starting a conversation about mental health, you’re creating a safe space for your friend to share more.
“You never have to be at the bottom of the barrel to reach out for help,” Morton says. “Everybody can benefit from therapy or from support from other people. We all need it. It’s just part of being a human. So the sooner we speak up, the sooner we reach out, the sooner we start feeling back to our normal selves.”
2. Seize the Awkward Convo
Yes, the first conversation might be awkward. But the best thing you can do is just know that, and still dive in.
“I think everything is awkward at first,” Morton says. “If you think back to any time you do anything for the first time—it’s always awkward. Probably the first time you tried to ride a bike you felt super awkward, right? So just know that it is always going to be awkward at the beginning.”
Not sure how to jump into the conversation? The Seize the Awkward campaign offers a few opening lines to start a conversation with a friend about their mental health:
●︎ “Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you?”
●︎ “Maybe it’s me, but I was wondering if you were all right.”
●︎ “I’ve noticed you’ve been down lately. What’s going on?”
●︎ “Seems like you haven’t been yourself lately. What’s up?”
When in doubt, lead with honesty and compassion.
“I think that the best thing you can do as a friend honestly is just check in with them and ask how they are doing,” Morton says. “Just be there. That’s it. Because you can’t force anybody, unfortunately, to get help or to reach out, but we can just remind them that people in their life care.”
Sometimes all someone needs to know is they’re not alone, and that they have people there for them when they’re ready to open up about their internal struggles.
3. Seek to Understand
The embarrassment and secrecy around mental illness is one of the main reasons why people never seek help. People often feel ashamed of their illness or are afraid people will judge them for it.
Yes, we’re more vocal about mental illness than ever—we even have celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Demi Lovato, and Lili Reinhart openly speaking about their battles. But there’s still a cloud of negativity that floats around mental illness, so it’s important to set the right tone to help someone to open up.
When approaching a friend about their mental health, start from a place of patience and understanding.
“The most important thing to remember is we can help them through understanding,” Morton says. “If we don’t understand we can ask them questions, we can seek to understand, we can just be there. Often times, it’s just helpful to have someone there with us. Being alone can be the hardest thing.”
If you don’t understand how depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness works, ask your loved one more about it. It’s better to ask questions rather than to get frustrated. And the same rule applies if you’re the one opening up about your mental health journey: As tough as it might feel, embrace the questions someone asks as they try to understand what you’re going through.
4. Create a Supportive Community
Mental illness can make people distant and less interested in life. This is the time when they need you the most.
“Friendship can play a key role in helping someone live with or recover from a mental health problem and overcome the isolation that often comes with it,” the Mental Health Foundation explains. “It's natural to worry when a friend is troubled and most of us don't want to give up on a friend in distress, however difficult it may be to support them.”
Get intentional and create a small support group for a friend in need. This group can consist of the most important people in their life. But the one rule of the group has to be “No put downs,” which means no one is allowed to make someone feel bad for sharing a thought or story. That way, everyone feels safe to share what’s on their mind.
“It’s really great that we can create communities where people feel safe to talk about what’s really going on and to offer their own experience or advice and to grow together,” Morton says.
Once your friend knows a group of trustworthy, caring people have their back, it might be what they need to open up about their mental health. And if they don’t feel like opening up, they’ll be thankful they’re part of a supportive community.
If you or a friend need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255 or text SEIZE to 741741. Both are free, confidential, and available 24/7. And if you or a friend need urgent help, call 911, or, take your friend to the emergency room for assistance. If you feel it’s safe, stay with your friend or find someone to stay with them until help arrives.
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