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Coronavirus and mental health: how to talk to a friend or family member about their wellbeing in lockdown

Are you worried about the wellbeing of a friend or family member in lockdown? Here’s how to broach the subject of mental health and get a conversation started.

It’s hard to comprehend how big an impact the coronavirus lockdown is having on the world’s mental health. We’ve read the statistics about rising anxiety levels and seen the warnings from international organisations about the possibility of a “global mental health crisis,” but because these things are too widespread and overwhelming to actually picture, it’s hard to connect with them on an emotional level.

But in reality, the mental health impact of the coronavirus crisis is already manifesting all around us. From family members suffering with the effects of long-term isolation to young people dealing with worries about the future, the pandemic is affecting us all in some way or another.

Of course, coronavirus is taking its toll of all off us, particularly those who have pre-existing mental health conditions, chronic illnesses or families who have lost loved ones, for example.

So what can we do when we’re worried about how a friend or family member is coping during the pandemic? We know how important it is to talk about mental health – but when you want to broach such a sensitive subject with someone who’s close to you, how can you start that conversation?

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How to talk to a friend about their mental health: we all know how important talking can be for our wellbeing, but how do you start that difficult conversation?

As someone who’s struggled with their mental health in the past, I know how hard it was for some of my closest friends and family members to start that conversation. Whether you’re stressed about saying the wrong thing, nervous about how you might come across or afraid you’ll offend them in some way, it’s completely normal to feel this apprehension when talking to someone about their mental health. 

But I can also tell you how incredibly important it is that you do reach out. Having someone reach out to check how you’re doing, offer help or support or simply let you know they’re there if you need them is amazing at the best of times, but when you’re really struggling, it’s a lifeline. Simply knowing that someone understands what you’re going through – and is willing to listen to whatever is going on – is incredibly powerful.

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So how can you broach the subject of mental health if you’re concerned about a friend or family member during this time? We asked Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform Remente, to share their advice.

1. (Actually) listen

When you’re struggling with your mental health, it can be hard to get across how you’re feeling. Instead of trying to put words in the other person’s mouth and generalise how they’re feeling, it’s important that you give them time to speak – even if what they’re explaining doesn’t make complete sense to you at first. 

“It can sometimes be difficult to understand why someone feels anxious, depressed, or stressed about certain things,” Eék explains. “The best thing you can do is to continuously check in, and actively listen to what they have to say, with a non-judgemental ear.

“Someone suffering may not even recognise the symptoms of ill mental health, instead, thinking that there is something wrong with them, that they are being ‘weak’ or even going ‘mad’. They may not want to open up to the fact that they are suffering from a mental health disorder, and, therefore, might not be able to vocalise or rationalise their feelings. 

“When someone is struggling with their mental health, their thoughts can become so crowded and tangled that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing them to feel that way. By offering a sympathetic ear, and giving them the time to speak at you, without interruption, you can help them to organise their thoughts, consequently helping them to feel calmer.”

2. Don’t trivialise

“As you listen, do not conclude the conversation by saying ‘it will be okay’ or ‘stop worrying’,” Eék advises. 

“The vast majority of sufferers know that their fears and worries are irrational, but they don’t need you to tell them this again and again. Instead, just listen to them, and reinforce the fact that you are there to help them. The more you know about what they are feeling, the more support you will be able to offer.

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“Once they understand that what they are going through is normal, that they aren’t alone, and that you care, they are more likely to speak to you, without being afraid of disappointment.”

3. Be patient

Seeing someone you love or care for going through a difficult time can be a stressful and upsetting experience, but it’s important you don’t let this show in front of the person who is struggling.

“Many people with anxiety are prone to jumping to conclusions and sometimes these conclusions can be quite negative, which can lead them to think that their loved ones are unhappy or angry with them,” Eék explains.“Instead of getting frustrated and irritated by this, you should find the time to calmly talk through the situation and find a workable solution for the next time your loved one gets anxious.”

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How to talk to a friend about their mental health: if you're particularly worried about how someone is coping, consider recommending professional help.

4. Recommend professional help

When I was struggling with my mental health, I found it hard to admit that I needed professional help. By reassuring your friend or family member that it’s OK to seek support, you could help them to get the support they need.

“It might be enough to offer your friend or family member a safe space to talk, to let them know they’re not alone, and share some methods and techniques that could help them, but keep in mind that you are not a professional and, if you see them continue to spiral, consider recommending or helping them to seek professional support,” Eék says. 

“Equally, they may be unwilling to speak to you about their problems. Don’t take it personally - this is about getting them the help they need so, instead, find someone they would be open to speaking to.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines.

Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

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