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How to start a conversation about mental health: an expert shares their tips

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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3 women starting a conversation about mental health

According to new data from mental health campaign group Time to Change, one in three people would put off speaking to a friend who is struggling with their mental health in order to avoid an awkward conversation. Here, we look at how to start these important conversations, no matter how “awkward” it may be.

In 2020, conversations about common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are dominating the headlines more than ever before.

With the likes of Fearne Cotton, Selena Gomez and Nadiya Hussain choosing to speak openly about their experiences, the long-standing taboos around conversations about mental health and wellbeing feel like they’re starting to dissipate. Indeed, it feels like it should be easier than ever to talk to our friends and family about their issues as well as our own. At least, that’s what we’d hoped.

However, that doesn’t quite seem to be the case. According to new data released today by the mental health campaign group Time to Change, 1 in 3 people would put off speaking to a friend who is struggling with their mental health in order to avoid a potentially awkward conversation.

The data, which came from a survey of over 4,000 UK adults, found that 39% would put off having a conversation about mental health for fear of saying the wrong thing, with 28% saying they would feel uncomfortable and 23% stating they’d worry about being rude. 

Two cups of coffee
Not sure how to start a conversation about mental health? A good way to start is just asking the person how they are.

While those concerns may sound pretty viable (after all, no one wants to make the situation worse), they’re also incredibly worrying – according to Time to Change, millions of people could be missing out on vital support from those around them as a result of these fears.

So how can we talk to a friend dealing with a mental health issue? There are many different ways to approach the topic – whether it’s going for a walk, asking them for a coffee or helping them to find the support they need – but the most important thing we can all do is simply be there for the people we love. After all, dealing with a mental health issue can be an incredibly isolating experience, especially when the people you love the most aren’t there to support you. 

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With that in mind, this Time To Talk Day (6 February) we asked Jo Loughran, director of  Time to Change, to provide us with some top tips on how to start a conversation with someone who is struggling with their mental health. 

1. Take opportunities to talk

“If you’re worried about a loved one then simply asking them how they are feeling is a good start,” she says. “Asking questions can give the person space to express how they’re feeling and what they’re going through, and it will help you to understand their experience better. 

Two friends walking
How to start a conversation about mental health: chatting while on a walk is a lot easier than speaking when you're sat down face-to-face.

“Try to ask questions that are open and not leading or judgemental – such as ‘how does that affect you’ or ‘what does it feel like?’”

2. Think about the time and place

“Sometimes it’s easier to talk side by side rather than face to face,” Loughran explains. “So, if you do talk in person, you might want to chat while you are doing something else. You could start a conversation when you’re walking, cooking or stuck in traffic. However, don’t let the search for the perfect place put you off!”

3. Don’t try and fix it

“It can be hard to see someone you care about having a difficult time but try to resist the urge to offer quick fixes to what they’re going through,” she adds. “Learning to manage or recover from a mental health problem can be a long journey, and they’ve likely already considered lots of different tools and strategies.

“Just talking can be really powerful, so unless they’ve asked for advice directly, it might be best just to listen.”

4. Treat them the same

“When someone has a mental health problem, they’re still the same person as they were before,” Loughran points out. “That means when a friend or loved one opens up about mental health, they don’t want to be treated any differently.

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“If you want to support them, keep it simple. Do the things you’d normally do.”

5. Be patient

“No matter how hard you try, some people might not be ready to talk about what they’re going through,” she explains.

“That’s ok – the fact that you’ve tried to talk to them about it may make it easier for them to open up another time.”

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