Today is Time to Talk Day - a day when many of us working or living with mental health issues make a particular effort to start conversations about mental health in a bid to raise awareness, reduce stigma and tackle misconceptions.
Many people are unsure about how to start the conversation though, especially when worried about a friend… so here are some ideas, inspired by people whose friends or loved ones did start the conversation:
“It took me a lot of time to be honest with my friend. It was about the fifth time she asked that I finally admitted something was wrong.”
If you’re worried about a friend, finding the courage to have the conversation once is likely not to be enough. Your friend may have had ongoing issues for some time and they may be absolutely terrified to open up about them. They may fear the reaction they’ll receive. They may be upset or confused about their own thoughts or feelings. They might simply not have the right words to say. So don’t just ask once. Persevere with your offers of kindness and listening, you never know when the right moment for the conversation might arise.
Chat whilst doing other things
“My friend finally opened up to me when we were skating in the park. I guess it felt a bit less intense and we were relaxed.”
This could be a pretty intense conversation and might simply feel a bit too much one-to-one. Talking about these issues whilst doing something else you both enjoy might help to break the ice a bit and let the conversation flow slightly less intensely.
“I didn’t know what to say but eventually realised that the only wrong thing to say was nothing, so I just got on with it and started the conversation. It felt a bit awkward at first but not for long.”
Even if you fumble over your words or don’t say quite the right thing, saying something shows we care and it gets the conversation started. The more we’re open to these conversations the more quickly we’ll learn the right and wrong things to say. At the start, the only wrong thing to say is nothing at all.
“My Mum gave me some really good advice, she said ‘He’s still your friend, nothing can change that, just talk to him like you would about anything else, he might be ill but he’s not a different person.’”
Just because they might have a mental health issue doesn’t mean someone suddenly turns into a completely different person. Just talk to them as you always have – draw on the things that normally fuel your conversations and make you feel good together.
“I was worried what my friends would think about me – it was really important to me to know that they wouldn’t judge me because of my self-harm.”
Those of us with mental health issues live in constant fear of judgement. A good friend never judges, they just open their arms and hearts and offer unconditional support. Make it clear that you are that friend from early on in the conversation, you won’t believe the relief your words and actions will bring.
Let your friend tell their own story
“The most helpful thing my friend did was just listen and let me talk.”
Don’t assume or guess what your friend is going through or why they feel the way they do. Instead just listen. Let them tell their own story, even if that is slow or difficult at times. It can be hard, especially when we’re just getting started with opening up, but it’s our story, not yours – listening is the very most helpful and important thing you can do just now.
Think about next steps
“I was too scared to ask for any help, but my friend helped me realise why it was important, and she came with me too.”
If a friend feels safe opening up to you, discuss with them about what you might do together to try to make things a little easier. What support could you seek and how could you go about that together? The journey is a lot less lonely and terrifying when you have a friend to accompany you.
I hope these ideas help at least a little – please use them to start a conversation with someone you’re concerned about – or share them to encourage friends to have the conversation with you. So many things start to feel better once we break our silence.
I recently appeared on the ChrissyB show and spoke on TV about my own current mental health issues for the first time and how opening up about my issues has made the journey far easier (I am 34 minutes in).
Whilst I’m a great advocate for talking openly about mental health and I do so in my writing often, finding the words to do so verbally is something I find far harder. I’m proud that I did it and I hope that this will encourage some other people to start the conversation too. Good luck!
Pooky is the Director of the Children, Young People & Schools Programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust who provide free training to support staff working with young people to develop their ability to recognise and manage mental health issues as well as funded workshops for parents and young people. Tweet @PookyH