The most common questions I am asked during mental health first aid training are:
'where do I even begin with what to ask?'and 'what if I say the wrong thing, will I offend someone or make them feel worse?' My answer is that overall, it is far more supportive to be genuine, empathetic and non-judgmental than worrying about what is the right or wrong thing to say. Try not to let your own worries get in the way of reaching out to someone as that conversation might just save a life.
Read on for my top tips on how to get those all important conversations started.
Create the right environment by planning your approach.
Thinking about when and where would be best for for the person to feel as safe and at ease as possible is an important first step. Avoid dropping in on a person during their busiest time and try to choose an environment that is calm and away from the crowds. I always like to 'walk and talk' as that feels less confrontational and getting outside into nature is a great stress reliever.
Be prepared to ask twice.
A simple question to get the conversation started could be, 'how are you feeling?' An often flippant question that is not usually asked with the expectation of an honest answer. 'I'm fine' is the usual automatic response so a follow up question such as, 'are you really, it's just I have noticed you've not been yourself lately. I'm here for you and I have time if you wanted to chat' may help the person to open up. If they don't want to there and then, at least they know you care and are there for them for when they are ready to talk.
Read my previous blog Time to Talk to watch a video about asking twice.
Adopt the swan.
You might feel a little uncomfortable or anxious having these types of conversations. That is perfectly normal but as best you can, it is important to 'appear' as calm and confident as possible. If a person picks up on your fear, they may close down themselves and stop talking. As a naturally anxious person, I always liken myself to a swan, gliding along the surface very serenely and with confidence but underneath the swan's legs (my stomach) is going ten to the dozen!
Replace judgement with empathy.
Until we have walked in a person's shoes we can never fully understand how or why a person has come to this point in their life. We may not understand why a person is feeling depressed or anxious about something, but we have to remember that we are not them. As human beings we are naturally hardwired to make judgements, it is what we do with them that matters. Try to park your judgements to one side and accept the person as they are, acknowledging that their feelings and fears are very real for them. It's ok for us to not understand, but we can empathise that a fellow human is going through a tough time right now.
Read my previous blog: Empathy vs. Sympathy to explore the impact these attitudes can have.
Have a plan.
I find having a framework helps me to structure a conversation in a way that I hope will help the person to feel held, listened to and believed in. Below are some examples of the steps I take:
Giving thanks: "Thank you for talking to me today, I know its not always an easy thing to do..."
Empathise: "You have been going through a really tough time, I can understand why you are feeling this way..."
Normalise: "It is perfectly normal to feel this way, you are not alone."
Hope & reassurance: "It may not feel like it right now but you will get through this and support is available..."
Empower: "What do you think would help you best right now and how can I support you with that..."
Follow up: "My door is always open if you ever want to talk, maybe I can check-in with you again to see how you are doing?..."
"Overall, it is more important to be genuine and empathetic than worrying about what the right thing to say is."
For more information around mental health awareness and skills training, please get in touch.