This month the Heads Together campaign is focusing on how to support someone who opens up to you about a mental health struggle or story. The campaign is spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry and aims to break down stigma by normalising this conversation around mental health.
It's important to recognise that we all need support from time to time for the mental wellbeing of ourselves and others. But it can be difficult to know how to respond or best help when a friend or family member shares that they have been struggling.
So while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been having a taster training with the YoungMinds Parent Helpline to learn how volunteers on the service offer support, I've drawn together insights from my work as a family therapist on the best ways to approach difficult conversations.
If a person you know chooses to share their experiences around mental health problems with you, you should be very proud that they feel sufficiently comfortable and trust you enough to speak about something that is very important to them. For some people, experiencing mental health problems can be scary, confusing and they may sometimes believe that no one else in the world feels similarly or will understand them.
Because there are so many misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental health problems, choosing to speak about these can be very difficult. A 16-year old young man I worked with once told me how important it was for him to be able to tell his best friend that he was self-harming and feeling very sad after the death of his mother. I asked him what had been helpful about his friend's response and he highlighted that his friend did not "freak out", nor "lecture him".
It was important that his friend listened to him patiently and acknowledged how brave he was in opening up to someone by sharing such important and difficult feelings and experiences. He also told me that as his friend did not think it would be useful to keep this a secret, nor did she know what to do to help him, she suggested they spoke to a trusted adult together.
He said that initially he wanted knowledge of his self-harming behaviour to be kept between them and felt a little upset that his friend wanted to speak with an adult. However, at the time the friend reassured him that they would still be friends but that it was good to field other ideas about coping with the death of a parent and consider better ways of managing his difficult experiences other than by self-harming. In hindsight, he was glad his friend encouraged him to seek further guidance and reassured him that things would get better.
It was important for him to know that his friend would still be there for him and was willing to talk and support him when necessary. It was also important for his friend to feel she could speak to her own parents when she felt she needed help supporting her friend.
So, if a friend of yours tells you about some of their difficulties, my top tips are:
• Be proud that they have chosen to speak with you
• Don't lecture them
• Don't freak out
• Don't feel obliged to keep secrets but be very sensitive not to gossip. Encourage your friend to speak to a trusted adult or go to their GP. You can offer to go with them or help them during this conversation
• Remember that if you feel you do not know how to help the other person it is OK to say so and it is OK to seek advice
• If you have ever been on an airplane they always ask you to put your own oxygen mask on first before you offer to help others. So be kind to yourself, too.