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How To Talk To Someone With Mental Health Problems

By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer

Talking to someone with mental health issues can help the person by giving them guidance, information, support, or attention; however, one should be aware of how to effectively communicate with them to avoid triggering them and be able to provide the best support. There is no one way to support someone with a mental illness, as there are many types of things people struggle with, and each individual might need a different kind of support. However, there are a few general guidelines to ensure effective communication: validate, empathize, and respect.

A general good rule when communicating with someone about mental health is to make sure the other person is comfortable and ready to talk about it. National Alliance on Mental Illness prescribes, “Ease into the conversation, gradually. It may be that the person is not in a place to talk, and that is OK. Greeting them and extending a gentle kindness can go a long way. Sometimes less is more.” Opening up is hard for many people, so show patience and try not to overwhelm them or be judgemental. Reassure them that you care for them and are there for them when they need it. During the conversation, pay attention to their tone and reactions that may signal confusion, anger, distress, or sadness, and handle the conversation accordingly. For instance, if the person seems upset or confused, slow down the discussion to give them some time to process and recover. You never want to disregard someone’s feelings; validate how they are feeling and offer comfort and support.

In a case where a person approaches you to talk about mental health issues, it may be beneficial to start the conversation by asking, “Do you want me to just listen, or do you want me to give you advice?” Sometimes, people may need to vent and process their thoughts and emotions, and talking it out one on one with someone may be helpful to them. This approach will help both members of the conversation, as both parties are on the same page about what kind of support they need at the moment (lRJ Foundation). When listening, make sure you show that you are paying attention and listening to what they are saying to make sure the receiver feels supported. Although this may be self-explanatory, avoid going on your phone during the conversation; face toward them and try to make eye contact to show you are receptive and care for what they are saying.

While you want to be empathetic when communicating with someone about mental health, make sure you still respect them and their age level. Mental illness does not have to do with someone’s intelligence and intellectual capability, so address them accordingly. Also, if you wish to be able to connect/understand the other person more, or be able to offer better advice, consider educating yourself about their condition. The more you know, the better you will be able to support. However, as with any topic, make sure your resources are reliable and accurate.

Naturally, it may seem uncomfortable and difficult to initiate this type of conversation. The American Psychiatric Association advises, “Express your concern and willingness to listen and be there for the person. Don't be afraid to talk about it. Reassure them that you care about them and are there for them. Use ‘I’ statements. For example, use ‘I am worried about you…,’ ‘I would like you to consider talking with a counselor….’ rather than ‘You are….’ or ‘You should….’.”

Additionally, if you believe that the person you are talking to needs more or professional support or would feel more comfortable talking to a professional, encourage them to look for and talk to a healthcare provider. Getting professional help and treatment is not a bad thing, it does not mean that something is “wrong” with you. It is what they are there for and will ultimately help people overcome mental health issues.

As mentioned previously, the most important thing is to make sure the person feels validated and safe, so here are some things National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends to generally avoid saying and doing:

  • “You just need to change your attitude.”

  • “Stop harping on the negative, you should just start living.”

  • “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”

  • Criticizing, blaming, or raising your voice at them

  • Talking too much, loudly, or rapidly

  • Assuming things about them or their situation

  • Sarcastic or joking comments about their condition

  • Patronizing them or saying anything condescending

Talking to someone about mental health issues can be tricky and uncomfortable as you want to make sure you are saying the right things and giving them the support they need. By educating yourself on how to effectively communicate, you may offer better support to loved ones.

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