5 Top Tips For Talking to Colleagues About Their Mental Health

Talking about one’s mental health is something that most people don’t feel comfortable doing. This goes for both those who are in the midst of a crisis and those who are trying to offer support. For those on the supporting end, it’s often hard to know what to say; what will help and what might seem condescending? For those struggling, it can feel humiliating to ask for help. Being in the midst of a mental health crisis often feels like a personal failing or a character flaw, rather than a real illness. This makes talking about it extremely frightening both because one worries about the potential negative reactions of those listening, and because of the worry that they may be over reacting.

What can make it easier to talk openly is being confident that the other person’s reaction won’t be a negative one. If the talk starts well then you are more likely to continue talking confidently about what it is that is troubling you.

1.Follow the tone of the person talking 

One important thing to keep in mind is to match the tone of the person who is disclosing information to you. Everyone approaches talking about their mental health differently and has different coping mechanisms to deal with the stress that it can bring on. If they want to keep the tone of the conversation light and casual then try to match that. Conversely if they are being serious about it then cracking jokes isn’t going to help the situation, only make it worse. Failing to match the tone of the conversation in situations such as this may make it seem as though you aren’t taking the person seriously which will only make them more reluctant to talk about it to you and others in the future.

2.Take them seriously 

Making sure the person talking feels as though they are being taken seriously is important as it will make sure they feel comfortable talking to you both now and in the future. Following the tone of the conversation is one way to do this but it is important to reassure them and validate their feelings, making sure they know it’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. It’s equally important to avoid potentially damaging and judgemental phrases such as telling someone to “pull yourself together” or that “others have it worse.” This undermines the seriousness of what they have chosen to trust you with.

3.Don’t give advice unless asked to 

Unless you have been asked to, do not overload the person speaking with advice as to what you feel they could or should be doing to help themselves. You can bet that they have thought of almost everything you’re going to tell them, whether that is seeing a doctor, trying therapy, meditation etc. Everyone deals with things differently and you can be fairly sure that they have considered it all. If they haven’t done anything yet it’s not because they haven’t thought of it, it’s probably because they’re trying to figure out the best way for them to get help. If you’re not careful, you may end up overloading the person with information about meditation and mindfulness, risking coming across as patronising rather than helpful. Unsolicited advice also ends up often centring the conversation on you and your opinions rather than the thoughts and feelings of the other person.

4.If asked for advice, be specific

If you are asked for advice however this is another matter. The thing to remember is not to ask open ended questions. Often when you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis you can’t think clearly, so questions like “What can I do?” aren’t very easy to answer. There is also a fear for many people that if they ask for help the other person may not be able or willing to provide it. Offering specific examples of help such as seeing if they need more breaks or a quiet place to work at times are easier to answer. They also don’t have the same fear that you will refuse to help them.

5.Listen and be patient 

It takes a lot of courage to open up to people about your mental health problems, and talking to colleagues about it is even harder. The most important thing to remember is that you have to be patient, and listen to what they are telling you. They have chosen to trust you with this information, which is harder than most people would assume. Don’t interrupt the person talking; finding the right words can be difficult and when you interrupt a person it could make you seem impatient with them, making them feel uncomfortable. Let them finish their thought even if they are struggling to find the right words, or finding it difficult to articulate how they feel. This allows them to lead the conversation. Fundamentally this is a conversation about them, how they are struggling and feeling and how you might be able to support them in a way that they feel comfortable with. They need to feel in control of the conversation without feeling like they have been derailed into talking about you and your opinions on the matter.