By Sarah Graham
What to do if you’re concerned about someone important in your life
At least one in four of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives – so why are we still so bad at talking about it? Mental health stigma has come on a long way in recent years, but when faced with a friend or partner who’s struggling, many of us still feel uncomfortable, or panic about saying the wrong thing.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’re concerned about someone important in your life, here are six ways you can help them seek the support they need.
1. Offer them a ‘soft place to land’
The best thing you can do for someone you think might be struggling is simply to be there, and make yourself available. For people battling mental health problems – in fact, for any of us – it’s important to feel cared for, and to have a safe space in which to talk about our feelings.
Nige Atkinson, author of The Odd Man Out book on men’s mental health describes this as “a soft place to land”, and says being gentle and understanding is the best way to create an environment where your loved one feels able to open up.
2. Start the conversation
Remember that, even if they feel comfortable with you, they won’t necessarily feel able to start that difficult conversation, so be prepared to take the first step.
“They might still be coming to terms with their thoughts and feelings, and struggling to say any of that out loud. Or they might be feeling quite worried and not have a clue where to turn,” says Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at mental health charity Mind.
“Sometimes people feel like they shouldn’t ask for help because it would be a waste of time, or that it’s not actually significant enough to talk about. Anything you can do to start that conversation is really helpful,” she adds.
Again, be gentle about it, using general questions and observations, like: “you seem a bit withdrawn, is that right?” or “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself, how are you feeling?” so they know you’re concerned and eager to help.
We’re all naturally inclined to search for answers and solutions but Rachel says: “don’t underestimate the importance of just listening. I think people tend to want results, but actually it’s that support, love and care that can be the most important part.”
She adds: “Even with all the best intentions, it’s impossible to have all the answers and solve all of someone else’s problems.” As frustrating as that can be, remember that just feeling heard and understood can make a big difference to your loved one.
4. Don’t push too hard
This is where the soft part of your “soft place to land” comes in. No matter how much you want to help, you can’t force your friend or partner to seek help if they’re not ready or willing to do so.
Particularly for men, Nige says: “what can sometimes happen is a woman in their life might go ‘come on, open up to me!’ and meanwhile he’s contracting inside because he’s got this incredible fear of being perceived as weak, and he doesn’t really know how to navigate that emotional landscape.”
In those cases, you might actively be shutting down the conversation simply by pushing too hard and making them feel uncomfortable.
“Remember that it’s ultimately up to that person to find help for themselves, and you can’t force them to get it. Your role is to support them and encourage them along the way,” Rachel says.
5. Help them find information and resources
One really practical, tangible thing you can do is to help signpost relevant information and resources. That might be searching for websites, books and helplines they might find helpful, or finding out about local support options – Google searches that are quick and easy for you, but might feel overwhelming to them right now.
“Encouraging them to speak to their GP is always a really important first step, as they can be a really good gateway into finding help locally,” Rachel says.
If they’re anxious about having that initial conversation with their GP, Mind’s Find The Words campaign offers lots of information and advice on what to say.
6. Remember to look after yourself too
This piece of advice is often overlooked, but it’s really vital – you’ll be no use to your friend or partner if you’re burned out and struggling too, so remember to take care of your own wellbeing.
“Set boundaries for what you can and can’t do. Take some time away from that person if it’s all a bit much, and make sure you look after things like your diet, sleep, physical activity, and any mental health problems of your own,” Rachel says.