How To Have Conversations About Mental Health - NCS Grad, Scarlett

ncs 15/03/2019
Conversation Week: Mental Health - Scarlett

For National Conversation Week, Scarlett speaks up about mental health. She offers valuable advice for those who suffer in silence and shares ideas based on her personal experience.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is tell people I was struggling with my mental health. I had to battle through feelings of doubt, fear and anxiety just to start a conversation. I realised I just didn’t know what to say. If you can relate to this, here are my top tips:

Say how you feel, then what you have
In the case of formally diagnosed mental illness, I’ve found it’s best to describe how you’re actually feeling before you tell people what you’re suffering with. This is because most people already have an idea in their mind of what certain conditions involve. This can often be inaccurate and is easily influenced by the media (which often misrepresents mental health for the ‘shock factor’). This can lead people to not actually understand what you’re going through. Instead, I try and always start by just telling them how I feel. “Recently, I’ve been struggling with… a lot.” Then, I go on to telling them my actual condition.

Make sure they know what it actually is
People don’t often realise the seriousness of certain conditions because they’re overused. How many times have you heard someone say, “They’re cancelling my favourite show, I’m so depressed.” or “That spider in the corner is freaking me out, I’m about to have a panic attack.” People start to associate these terms with just feeling sad, worried or scared. They forget the complexity and seriousness of these conditions. To avoid this, I always remember to describe other less well known symptoms. For example, I’d say, “I have depression, which also causes low motivation and energy. This means some days I find even easy tasks really difficult.”

Don’t be upset if they don’t accept it
In some cases, especially if you don’t have a formal diagnosis, some people just can’t accept there’s anything wrong. This can be because they don’t fully understand the condition, or don’t want to believe there’s anything wrong. Sometimes further explanation can help clarify the matter, but other times people just don’t get it, and refuse to try. That is okay. Remind yourself that the validity of your mental health issues isn’t defined by whether one particular person understands or accepts it. 

Once you’ve told someone you’re struggling, how do you ask for support?

Tell them what’s wrong (be specific)
They know you’re struggling with your mental health, but do they know specifically what’s wrong right now? Telling someone exactly how you’re feeling can allow them to help more effectively.

Tell them what you need
All of my friends know that sometimes I need advice and encouragement. Sometimes I need to be distracted from it, and sometimes I just need to rant – but they can’t know which, unless I tell them. Soon, you’ll start to suss out who’s better at what – I have one friend who I can always rely on to cheer me up. He tells me funny stories or sends me memes. I have another who’s really motivated and I always call her if I’m struggling with school work. I also have a small group chat of my closest friends who I know I can share anything with. I turn to them when I just need to rant. 

Don’t assume they’re able to help
Often when you’re going through something it can be hard to remember everyone’s dealing with their own stuff. With the rise of social media, you can contact people 24/7 (which personally I think is great) but it’s also getting increasingly more difficult to isolate oneself. I try to start my conversations with, “Hey, can we talk? I’m not feeling too great. Is it okay if I call you?”. It helps them to know you need support but also gives them an opportunity to say no if they are unable to deal with it at that moment.

Finally, as conversations take two people, I’d like to address it from the other side. What do you say if someone you know has a mental illness?

Firstly, make no assumptions
Remind yourself that mental health is completely unique to each individual. Having experience with the condition, doesn’t mean you know exactly what they’re going through, or how to help them. I used to get panic attacks and whenever I had one around a particular friend, she would always hug me really tight. Her sister also had them, and it made her feel better. Little did she know, I had ‘sensory overload’ (where noises, light, and touch become too much). Hugs made me feel like I was being suffocated. 

Try not to accidently invalidate them
Countless times, I’ve told people I’m feeling down and they reply, “But what have you got to be sad about?”. Although these kind of comments come from a place of love and wanting to help, they can often end up invalidating their pain, making them feel guilty. Mental illness can be very separate from someone’s circumstances. In my case, I have clinical depression which is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s nothing to do with how good or bad my life is.

Ask them what they need
It can be difficult to help someone if you don’t know how. I recommend just saying, “Hey, what do you need?” notice how I didn’t say “Do you want to talk about it?”. Ask them what they need and allow them to tell you. It might be they want to talk about it, they might want you to leave them alone or get someone else, or they could just want a hug.

Finally, just be there
Mental illness can be difficult and scary to talk about – but that’s not an excuse not to. In my experience, a friend who’s there but doesn’t know what to say is far better than a friend who is nowhere to be found because they find it difficult to talk about. Even just being there can be a huge support to someone if they’re feeling isolated, insecure, or lonely.

In summary, my advice when talking about mental health is simple: be honest, be specific, and be kind.