You can see they are struggling; you can see it in their eyes, the silence in that moment feels heavy and as if the world has stopped dead. You feel your heart starting to pound harder inside your chest and feel a sense of panic coming on.
You say loosely, ‘You, ok?’ and wait for an answer, they shrug it off and you wonder why they aren’t being honest. Why won’t they just talk to me? In that moment you freeze for a second and then turn back to your phone and think, ‘well at least I tried’. They know I am here if they want to talk, right?
Starting a conversation with someone about their mental health can feel difficult, perhaps a little awkward however it doesn’t need to be. We often fear that we will say the wrong thing and cause offence, it is common to then avoid the topic altogether. I wouldn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, would I? From my experience, it is easier to go back on a conversation and reframe what you meant as opposed to trying to go back in time and put in a conversation that never happened. Harsh but true, so be brave.
Statistics from a survey conducted by MIND (2014) found that 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts, 1 in 14 people self-harm and 1 in 15 have attempted suicide. These are numbers that we can’t ignore, with a little extra thought and a touch of courage, we could save someone in crisis. Someone may not be thinking this, but what if they are?
So how can we help encourage someone to talk? Shaking them and shouting at them to talk to you won’t help so what else can we do? The reality is that not everyone will want to talk and at the end of the day, we can’t force someone to open up. But we can be consistent with our care, support and listening ear. I always like to focus on what we CAN do and less on what we CAN’T.
Tips to opening a conversation:
- Try approaching a conversation when driving (if safe to). From my experience, moving along, listening to music quietly and looking out the window or focusing on the road ahead can help take the pressure off.
- Suggest going for a tea or coffee? Make it the norm, going to grab a non-alcoholic drink to talk about life and the world, and see if they feel more comfortable in this setting.
- Take the conversation outside. Green open spaces can be refreshing and help the conversation flow better. A little boost of endorphins from moving your body can work wonders too.
- Invite them to do an activity that they are passionate about and agree to give it a go yourself. Bond over something they enjoy and get them feeling relaxed.
Although it is useful to think outside the box and find ways to encourage someone to open up, it is also important to acknowledge some of the barriers on why someone may not want to…
Stigma is certainly something to consider, this isn’t going to go away overnight, and some do still fear speaking up due to being judged or treated differently for doing so. Another element to consider is that often we wade in with our advice and offer to fix someone’s problems – this in some cases is not helpful. The Karpman Theory from the 1960’s talks about how in situations we can often go into 1 of 3 roles. These are, ‘The Victim’, ‘The Persecutor’ or the ‘The Rescuer’. Being ‘The Victim’ is when we somehow turn the conversation around to us and how we feel about it, ‘The Persecutor’ will look to place blame and lastly ‘The Rescuer’ will look to solve the problem with a magic wand and all will be ok again. But will it? This can be tough, especially when supporting a loved one, but listen, ask open questions and you never know, you may get them to talk or even come up with their own action plan to make things better.
Having a good conversation with someone about how you are feeling is like putting on a warm jumper after feeling cold to your bone all day, drinking a soothing warm drink or even having a good old-fashioned hug with a loved one. Our words can be of comfort to someone and make a real difference.
If all else fails, highlight that you care about them and are whole heartedly there no matter what. This will make them feel safe with you and one day they may be ready to speak up. Be brave, give it a go, better to be a little embarrassed then regret not saying anything at all.