Sometimes we might get a sense that someone is not ok. It’s in these moments we might want to check how they are, but not know where to start, or worry they may disclose something we can’t deal with.
There are lots of ways to approach a conversation about mental health and empathy is important. Here are three tips that might help.
If we ask someone how they are, people often reply with “I’m fine”, because they don’t want to be a burden or might think we’re not really that interested. Research from the Mental Health Foundation identified people will often say they’re ok, but only mean it 19% of the time.
To show we do care, we could ask again. We can follow up with “You sure you’re ok?” This gives them the opportunity to say how they’re really feeling.
If they still reply they’re ok, at least they know you’d be listening, if at a later date they want to open up.
When someone discloses how they feel, our mind might go blank, or they say something so intense or unexpected we don’t know how to reply, especially if we don’t want to make things worse.
It’s ok to say “I don’t know what to say” but you can follow this up with “I’m just so glad you told me”. People often worry that others will judge them when they finally talk about how they feel. This phrase lets them know they did the right thing in talking to you.
It can be so tempting to jump in with “This is what you need” or “I know exactly how you feel”. But when we do this, we may be adopting a position of power (to control the situation, even if with good intentions) rather than a place of compassion.
It’s ok to ask what would help, by saying things like “Do you want some advice or would it help if I just listen?” They can then make choices about what’s most useful in that moment, rather than us taking over, which is often unwanted. Unsolicited advice can be a boundary invasion, if that’s not the reason they told you. It’s important we respect their autonomy and ability to make decisions for themselves.
If they say they want some advice, you could start with “What’s helped you before?” so you know you’re not offering something they’ve already tried. Then if it’s helpful you might signpost them to some organisations that can help, especially if we feel it’s outside our remit.
You could also give them the number for Samaritans on 116 123 in the UK, who are available 24/7, especially if there is mention of thoughts about suicide. (If it feels like an emergency, call 999). You may also find this page from Samaritans helpful.
Remember to look after yourself if you’re helping someone you’re worried about. Keep good boundaries so they don’t lean on you so much you become overwhelmed. Self-care is also important, so make time to make sure you’re ok too.
Delphi is the author of Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, out now.
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