We can all play a key role in influencing whether the person we care about asks for help and how soon they seek professional help and treatment. But we also need to keep in mind that there’s a chance the person we’re trying to help might not be willing to seek professional help and treatment. At least not right away. Maybe they might take a little while to take that step.
At times, the person we’re trying to help may not recognise changes in their mental health. Maybe they don’t believe that there’s a problem. Some people might feel they can manage on their own without professional help and treatment.
It’s also important to remember the impact stigma, discrimination and negative talk associated with mental ill-health can have on someone. This can play a role in whether a person is comfortable opening up. They may feel a sense of fear or shame and be reluctant to seek help. Some might take time to build their confidence to open up.
It can therefore be a difficult step for the person you’re trying to help and a challenging situation for you who wants to help. Having a better understanding of how to gain their trust can help you encourage them to find their North and the help and support they need.
How to recognise when something isn’t right
The following are just some of the common signs that someone has or may be developing a mental health condition:
- They’re suddenly no longer interested in their hobbies
- They don’t seem to enjoy anything anymore, including the things they used to love
- They seem to get angry or sad easily or for no reason
- They’ve talked about hearing strange voices or seem to be hearing voices
- They seem like they don’t feel anything anymore
- They used to be healthy, but now they’re always sick
- They either eat a lot more or don’t eat much
- They’ve been unusually consuming alcohol or drugs
- They appear to have developed an addiction
- Their sleep patterns have changed, or don’t seem to sleep at all
- They seem to get anxious about situations that seem normal to you
- They’ve been skipping work or school
- They’ve been avoiding social situations, including avoiding friends and family
- They’ve said they’ve been having unsettling thoughts or suicidal thoughts
You can learn more about common mental health conditions here.
How to talk to someone about their mental health
The following tips will guide you when talking to someone about their mental health and encouraging them to seek help:
If you’ve been repeatedly telling the person that they need to seek help, stop. Repeatedly nagging, urging, guilting or threatening into seeking professional help and treatment can harm your relationship and push the person to shut down, shut you out or even self-harm. It could also cause further mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, panic attacks and self-medicating (for example drugs, alcohol or gambling).
When approaching the person about any concerns that you or they have, choose a time and place that’s suitable for both of you. It is important you both feel comfortable and have privacy. Avoid times when either of you is in a crisis or are stressed.
Finding a neutral space to meet such as a coffee shop rather than approaching someone in their bedroom or personal space is also recommended.
When you’re raising a concern, make it about your own feelings, observations, concerns or beliefs and not a criticism of the person. If you approach it with “you”, they will feel judged, attacked and ambushed and therefore be defensive. Don’t say things like “I hate seeing you like this, you need to get help!” Instead try, “I’m really worried about you. I think it might help you to talk with someone about what you’re going through.”
Set aside any beliefs you may have about the person and what they may be going through. Don’t talk about any of that, just let them talk freely and tell you about their thoughts, problems, fears and what they’re struggling with. Truly listen empathetically so you can get an understanding before you offer your help or make any suggestions.
Now that you’ve listened to the person and heard and understood what they’re experiencing, you can offer your emotional support by empathising with their feelings and by showing them that there’s support available. This will give them a sense of hope that they can recover from the difficulties they’re experiencing, and that it’s possible to have a better life. Ask them whether they would like you to give them some information about mental health conditions and the issues that they sound like they could be experiencing.
Helping someone doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers and solutions to solve their problems. Suggest to the person that you help them look up and book the different options of appropriate support available that could help them recover. These would usually start with talking to a GP, counsellor or psychologist. It may lead to a mental health assessment, attending therapy, support groups, medication and/or seeking assistance with areas of life such as accommodation, education and employment.
These can be self-help strategies such as using mental health apps, reading books, watching videos and listening to podcasts around mental health and well-being. With the person’s permission, encourage family members, friends, co-workers and others to support them, and remind the person that it is ok to ask these people for support. This helps them create a support network they can call on in a crisis. Remember, if the person is not ready to discuss their mental health with others, it is not your place to freely share their personal information with others.
The adult you’re helping has the right to decide whether what they say in a conversation with you can be shared with other people. They also have rights when deciding whether to seek help and supports and to consent to medical treatments, hospital admission or refuse life-saving medical treatment. Read more about their rights here.
It’s important that you look after your own mental health while supporting someone who is struggling. After your conversation about their mental health problems, you may feel overwhelmed, drained, down or ‘depressed’. If you can, talk to someone so you can be your healthiest self when supporting others.
How to respond in an emergency or crisis
If you’re concerned about the person’s immediate safety, call Triple Zero (000).
If you think the person is experiencing thoughts of suicide, ask them “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Asking about suicide won’t increase their suicidal thoughts nor cause the person to act on these thoughts. If they mention they’re considering suicide and this is the first you’ve hear about it, try to stay calm, don’t panic. This way you appear confident and supportive. Avoid expressing any negative reactions. Express empathy instead and ask questions that help you determine the next action (questions to see whether they have a plan for suicide, how they intend to do it, whether they’ve started to carry out the plan, what they’ve tried before, and whether they hear voices that tell them to end their life). Those at the higher risk of actually acting on their suicidal thoughts in the near future are the ones who have a plan.
Talking and expressing their feelings (crying, screaming, expressing anger) often helps people to feel heard and less isolated and afraid. They may have been feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and helpless and didn’t see a way out other than suicide. And not everyone who has thoughts of suicide (and/or engages in self-harm) will make a suicide attempt. Put your attitudes and beliefs about suicide aside and don’t say things like “suicide is wrong”, “suicide is irrational” or “you’re doing it to get attention”. Plus, don’t avoid the word “suicide”. But if you feel unable to talk to them about suicidal thoughts, find someone who can. Roses in the Ocean have a great resource hub that is worth checking out.
Treat all thoughts of suicide seriously and encourage the person to get appropriate professional help as soon as possible. Give them the contact details for the suicide prevention helplines they can call if they’re feeling suicidal.