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You have an inkling someone you care about might be experiencing mental health issues, so you ask if they’re okay. They say they’re not okay – now what? Or perhaps a friend confides in you at soccer, over a coffee or in the car on the way home from a party that they’re feeling especially anxious or very down. What do you do next?
We often encourage people to reach out for mental health support, but figuring out what to do when someone asks for help can be downright daunting. Thankfully, offering support and assistance isn’t as difficult or awkward as you might imagine – and it can help the ones you love a great deal, says Dr Melissa O’Shea, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Deakin University.
Here are some practical tips to get you started.
No matter how close you are with your friend, partner, colleague or family member, understand this: disclosing a mental health issue is probably very difficult for them – and it speaks volumes of your relationship.
‘This sort of disclosure often takes some degree of bravery – they’ve taken a big step to confide in you,’ Dr O’Shea says. ‘It says something about really wanting to seek help, but also the depth of the relationship between you. It’s quite a privilege if somebody discloses that they’re struggling, and it’s fair to say represents a degree of trust they have in you.’
Unless instructed otherwise, the best way to maintain that trust is to keep the disclosure to yourself. ‘Always presume it’s in confidence, unless you’ve had a discussion around who else it might be good to involve in the discussion,’ Dr O’Shea says.
Having someone to talk to about a mental health issue that’s been kept private, often for a long time, can be extremely therapeutic. Sometimes, the best way to help is simply by listening, says Dr O’Shea.
‘So often people share their problems, not because they want a solution, but because they want to share what’s on their mind and feel that somebody who they’re connecting with is hearing their struggle,’ she says.
'It's quite a privilege if somebody discloses that they're struggling, and it's fair to say represents a degree of trust they have in you.'
Dr Melissa O’Shea,
School of Psychology, Deakin University
It can be helpful to ask about remedies that have worked in the past. Maybe your colleague turns to exercise when dealing with stress or your sister finds a few days off work beneficial during periods of low mood. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy food and visiting friends are other effective strategies.
‘Really try to encourage them to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the past instead of immediately jumping to something that maybe they’ve tried and hasn’t been helpful,’ Dr O’Shea says.
Crucially, your job is facilitating their ability to work through previous remedies rather than trying to solve the problem. You’re a close confident – not a psychologist. No one expects you to have the clinical expertise to know how to help a friend with depression or anxiety.
‘It’s about being present,’ Dr O’Shea says. ‘They’re not reaching out to you to be a professional – they’re reaching out to you because your support is important to them.’
When someone you’re close to discloses they’re not okay, your first response might be to say that everything will be okay soon. ‘It’s normal to want to reassure them, but this approach isn’t always helpful because it might communicate you’re not necessarily hearing how difficult it feels for that person at that time,’ Dr O’Shea says.
Instead of offering reassurance, she recommends asking them what you can do to help – now and over the longer term. ‘Ask them: “What can I do to help? When would it be helpful for me to touch base with you again? Is it helpful for me to ask about how things are going or not?”’
If you’re worried about their mental health based on what you’ve been told or observed – perhaps they’re not sleeping or eating properly and starting to withdraw from work, study or other opportunities to connect – Dr O’Shea suggests strongly encouraging them to seek professional support from a GP.
‘In situations where they might disclose to you that they feel unsafe or are having suicidal thoughts, for example, you might say, “I’m worried about you – how would it feel if we reached out to get support together? What would it mean for us to both go and see the GP together?”’
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