- Worried about someone else?
Worried about someone else?
If you're worried about someone else's mental health, then it's important to do what you can to help. The question is - what can you do? You might wonder if it's even your job to get involved, or whether your interference will just make things worse. How do you even bring up the subject of mental or emotional health with a friend, family member, or colleague? Will they be insulted? Will they think you're being nosy? What if you push them further into denial or trigger even worse feelings and behaviours?
Being worried about someone else's mental health and not knowing what to do can be extremely stressful. The action you take will depend on your relationship with this person and it will also depend on what kind of problem you suspect they have. While every situation is different, there are some practical guidelines you can follow for knowing what to say and where to get help. The more you know about mental health and counselling, the better position you will be in to offer informed advice and get the support that person needs. Remember, it helps to feel like someone else cares. Without support, compassion and empathy, mental illness can be a very lonely road.
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I don't know what to do
If you're worried about someone else but you don't know what to do - don't worry, this is an entirely natural response. Most people struggle to broach difficult subjects, even with family members and close friends (sometimes especially with family members and close friends). If you're worried about someone else's mental health then the best thing you can do is talk to them about it. Of course, mental health isn't exactly a natural conversation starter and, depending on your relationship with this person, you might find it an extremely difficult topic to bring it up.
Why is it so hard to talk about mental health?
While in America 'seeing a shrink' appears to be about as commonplace as doing the weekly shop, here in the UK we prefer to keep our problems to ourselves. Despite many years of scientific discoveries, education and campaigning for better mental health awareness, lots of British people still struggle to talk about mental health.
This is really no wonder, given our not-too-distant ancestors' history of locking up and sedating anyone who vaguely rejected cultural norms (including homosexuals and women who gave birth out of wedlock). However, the more we've learnt about the human brain, the closer we've come to understanding how and why things sometimes go wrong. Now we know that mental illness is not a symptom of 'evilness', a 'sign of the devil', or an indication that a person needs to be taken away from society. Mental illness is a natural part of being an intelligent species; when there's a lot going on in the brain, there's going to be a lot of room for problems. In fact, according to the Mental Health Foundation, one in six of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives.
Spotting a mental health problem in someone else
Perhaps you're worried about someone else's mental health - how do you know if their behaviour is an illness, or a passing phase caused by difficult events in their life? When things go wrong in life, we become vulnerable to mental health problems. Events including bereavement, divorce and redundancy can lead to periods of mental distress. However, when those initial reactions don't settle after time, they can develop into long term mental health problems.
Take the time to observe your friend/family member/colleague's behaviour and look out for the following signs:
- Have they become more withdrawn than usual? Are they avoiding social contact and refusing invitations?
- Have you noticed them crying a lot? Puffy cheeks and red eyes can indicate they've been crying in private.
- Has their performance at school or work gone downhill lately?
- Have you noticed significant changes in their eating habits? I.e. eating a lot or little.
- Are they turning up looking dishevelled/like they haven't washed or taken care of themselves for a while?
- Do they seem dopey/lethargic, like they're not quite there?
- Have you noticed a change in how they speak? I.e. rapidly, incoherently, or slowly.
- Do they seem to be spending extravagant amounts of money?
Remember that every mental health problem has its own signs and symptoms. Often these can be missed or dismissed as quirky character traits. If you have a feeling something isn't quite right with someone you know very well, then chances are it's not. It is vital to listen to those base instincts when they kick in because they could be the only reason that person gets the help they need.
Should I talk to them?
Yes - if you're worried about someone else's mental health then the best thing you can do is talk to them. You never know, they might have been struggling to bring up the topic with you.
Often the hardest part of having a mental illness - whether diagnosed or not, is not knowing how to talk about it. Living with a mental illness can be a lonely experience. What if people make judgements? What if it affects employability, or ruins relationships and friendships?
While you may not know (or ever know) how this person is feeling inside, you can help them by asking questions and inviting them to talk about how they feel. Even if they're not ready to open up to you, the interest you show in them will help them see that someone is there to listen.
Talking to someone about their mental health
How do you bring up the topic of mental health with someone you're worried about? What if you're not used to talking about such personal things with them? What if they think you're being patronising, or critical of them? What if talking about it makes the situation worse? There are infinite 'what ifs' when it comes to emotionally difficult situations. You can run through each one separately in your head and torment yourself with the worst-case scenarios if you like, or you can just go ahead and do it, and deal with any resulting problems IF they arise. After all - it doesn't really matter how this person reacts to you at first; the simple act of showing concern will remind them you're there and that means they're not alone. Soon, they might be ready to talk about it.
If you're not sure how to start a conversation about mental health with someone you're worried about, you can follow our tips below:
1. Check your mindset
Make sure you approach the conversation with the right intentions. You might be feeling hurt or frustrated by their behaviour, but going into it with that level of resentment will only make the problems worse. Go in having done your research about mental illness (the fact that you're here reading this shows you're on track) and try to keep as open minded as possible, even if you feel completely out of your depth.
2. Pick your moment carefully
Don't bring up the topic in the midst of an argument. For example, if you think your dad has a drinking problem, don't scream at him to visit a counsellor - he probably won't appreciate your suggestion if he's feeling attacked. Similarly, if you think your teenage daughter has an eating disorder, don't start the conversation at the dinner table - this is a place where she'll feel most defensive and least likely to respond well to what you're saying. Whatever the problem is and whatever your relationship is with the person you're worried about, pick your moment carefully and try to choose a time when you're both getting along quite nicely i.e. when you're out for a walk, having a cup of tea, or doing something casual like watching TV.
3. Be honest
Don't beat around the bush - take control of the situation and be forthright. Ask how they are, say you've noticed they've been acting differently lately and that you want to help if you can.
4. Listen carefully
While you may be desperate to make the situation better, don't try to offer your advice straight away. Don't have a 'been there done that' attitude. Even if you yourself have first-hand experience of mental illness, or know someone who does, save all that for later. At first you need to listen to them. Everyone's experience is different and while you may be trying to normalise the situation, you risk sounding like you think their situation is trivial, which makes you sound like a) you think they're overreacting and b) you don't understand.
5. Ask open-ended questions
Ask open-ended questions like 'how do you feel about?...', 'what do you think?...' and 'why do you think that is?' If you say things like 'does that make you feel sad?', or 'is that because you had a bad experience when you were young?' then you may influence their answers, or prevent them from saying what they really mean. Once they answer, reiterate what they have said back to them, to show you understand and to give them an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings. Hearing something said back to them could help them clarify things in their mind, too.
6. Focus on the small things
Try to pinpoint the small things they're doing right. Say they're doing a good thing by talking about it, and show them a clear path ahead. While you should try to give them hope, you should also try to resist taking too much control. The fact remains that you don't actually know what's going on in their head. However, by showing that you're there to support their decisions and by making little things easier for them (like offering them a lift to GP appointments, helping them write a letter to their boss etc.), you are effectively helping them find their own solution.
7. Give them resources
Send them links to useful websites or forums where they can read up about potential mental health problems, share their experiences with other people and find out how to get help. If you think they might benefit from seeing a counsellor, point them to Counselling Directory and encourage them to browse counsellor profiles to get a better idea of what it all involves. There are still misconceptions about counselling and psychotherapy, which can put some people off the idea. Reading personal stories by other people and knowing what to expect from a session can take away those doubts and anxieties.
8. Don't forget about them
Even if your friend, family member or colleague does manage to get the support and treatment they need, they may still need your support. The 'support' you show doesn't have to be anything big. Simply picking up the phone or dropping an email to see how they are can help. Equally, don't let their mental health problem take over the relationship you share. Nobody wants to feel defined by their mental illness - after all, they are still the same person beneath that mask and being treated like a patient will only isolate them further.