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Why do We Need Supportive Conversations on Mental Health?

All of us have mental health and yet, approaching conversations about mental health may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Mental health sits on a continuum similar to physical health, and people can enjoy good mental health or find themselves with mental health issues. Hence, you may inadvertently find yourself landing in a conversation about mental health in any setting, in your personal life with family and friends, professional settings with co-workers, or in community settings. When not approached with the right intention and skills, these conversations may cause hurt and perpetuate mental health stigma. Words can hurt or heal and do matter in supportive conversations on mental health. Although there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach these conversations, there are some absolute Dos and Don’ts that we will discuss in our blog post today.

Do’s in Supportive Conversations on Mental Health

  • Do Communicate Care and Interest. Before finding words on what to say, it is important to express care and interest towards the other person.  Ways you can communicate care include maintaining eye contact, providing space for the person to talk, and being encouraging. Ways you can encourage someone to share include empathic statements such as “This must be hard for you” and “That seems really exhausting.”
  • Be Non-Judgmental. Your attitude is just as important as your words. If you are striving to be non-judgmental towards someone struggling with a mental health concern, your words will naturally fall into place. Being non-judgmental means not driving the conversation into the direction you would like it to. Examples of ways you can speak non-judgmentally are to restate what the person said about their difficulties, and to honor their unique experiences without trying to force them into a box or label.
  • Be Sensitive. Try to read the room and if you notice that someone is withdrawing from the conversation, maybe take a breath and give them some space to process what is going on. It may not have been anything that you have said and sometimes, it can be challenging for one to share about their mental health challenges. They may need a break or simply cannot share any further. If the person finds it hard to continue sharing, you can let them know that they can approach you later.
  • Do Offer Support. Ask the person what they need from you at the end of the conversation. Sometimes, there is nothing they need more than a listening ear. Extending care, time and thought is more than sufficient sometimes. There may not always be a solution to the problem and you may be relieved to know you don’t have to be the one to provide a solution to their problems.


Don’ts in Supportive Conversations on Mental Health

  • Don’t Make Assumptions or Give Unsolicited Advice. To exercise support for someone, try to meet the person where they are. It can be easy to slip into the rabbit trail of making assumptions of the person’s experience based on incorrect information you may have been exposed to or preconceived notions about a mental health condition. Offering advice that has not been asked from you can be harmful. An example of giving advice could be, ‘Why don’t you just stop thinking about this issue and just move on?’ or to someone with an eating disorder, ‘Why don’t you just eat more?’
  • Don’t Extend Sympathy. Feeling sorry for someone who shares about their mental health is unhelpful and reduces the person’s status. Nobody wants to be pitied for having a medical condition and likewise, for experiencing mental health difficulties. Instead of saying phrases like ‘Oh you poor thing’, try to imagine what its like to be in their position and empathize with them. An example might be, ‘This is really tough and I can only imagine how difficult it is to battle these thoughts on a daily basis.”
  • Don’t Use Stigmatizing Language. Examples of stigmatizing language include words such as ‘crazy’ or ‘mental’ to describe someone with mental health issues. Oftentimes, we may even hear others describe behaviours that are ‘OCD’ without truly understanding the mental health condition, and that can minimize the experience of persons with the mental health condition. Stigmatizing language is insulting and derogatory and has no place in supportive conversations.


Wrapping Up

As with everything, practice makes perfect. You may find yourself catching something you said that was insensitive or judgmental. You may make mistakes along the way. Perfection is not key. Rather, continuous learning and the desire to seek out information on conversing with others about mental health can help you strengthen your ability to support others who share their mental health challenges.


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