Mental Health: What can I do to help?

Have you noticed that someone close to you hasn’t been acting like themselves? Does their behaviour make you wonder if they’re having more than just a rough spell? Do you want to help them but you aren’t sure how to bring up the topic of mental health?

Having a conversation about someone’s mental health can be difficult, and you may be worried about saying the wrong thing or sending a bad message. How can you talk to someone about something so personal without upsetting them or getting pushed away?

Although it might not be easy, talking to someone about their mental health can play a vital role in their future. By encouraging them to take the first step and acknowledge that they’re struggling with their mental health, you’re most likely helping them to begin to lead a comfortable life where they have more control over their thoughts and emotions.

For many people, bringing up mental health is very difficult

Undiagnosed mental health conditions lead to long-term challenges

Mental health conditions are more common in Australia than you might think. At any given time, one fifth of Australians are experiencing a mental illness. And almost half of all Australians will have a mental illness at some point in their lives. The most common types are anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorder.

Unfortunately, less than half of these people ever receive treatment. Studies have shown that when people get treatment for their mental health conditions, they have a 75% chance of significantly improving. Every year, thousands of people suffer from treatable conditions, but they don’t get help because they don’t realise they can heal, or they’re afraid of telling someone about what they’re going through.

Without treatment, people with mental illnesses face:

  • A decline in their overall mental health
  • Chronic stress
  • Difficulty keeping a job
  • Aches and muscle tension
  • Financial problems, which can lead to bankruptcy or even homelessness
  • Criminal charges
  • Feeling like a victim
  • Suicide

Every day, at least six Australians lose their lives to suicide. For Australians aged 25-44, this is the leading cause of death, and the second most common cause of death for youths aged 15-24.

More Australians die of suicide per year than skin cancer.

Once researchers discovered how dangerous skin cancer is, people started protecting themselves and campaigns were launched to make people aware of the dangers of UV rays. People think nothing of reminding a friend or relative to put on a shirt or reapply sunscreen. But there is still a reluctance to speak up about mental health, even though it is more prevalent.

By taking the first step and telling someone that they may have a problem with their mental health, you’re helping them to begin improving their life. And possibly even saving it.

Offer your support without judgement or conditions

There isn’t one ‘right’ way to tell someone that their behaviour is making you wonder if they have a mental health condition. But if you’re genuine, non-judgemental, and truly listen, you’re more likely to be heard.

Depending on their personality and your relationship, you could:

  • Tell them you care
  • Ask how you can help
  • Offer to do routine things for them, like clean the house or pick up groceries
  • Express empathy or understanding (without claiming to know how they feel)
  • Be supportive and present
  • Simply tell someone that you’re there for them, acknowledge that they’re going through a hard time and listen

Any of these can make a huge positive difference. Mental health conditions are often very isolating so letting someone know that you care can help them feel less alone and worried about the future. You can encourage them to talk about how they feel and how their lives have changed recently, without giving advice, solutions or a diagnosis.

Some people’s mental health conditions are a natural response to a life event, such as becoming depressed after the death of a loved one or anxious and withdrawn after a traumatic experience. Giving a friend or relative the opportunity to talk about how their experience has affected their mental health could let them acknowledge to themselves and others that they have a problem and need help.

You can use supportive phrases such as “I’m here for you” and “I know this has been a really hard time for you” to offer your support. Saying things like “I don’t know what you should do, but I’m here for you to help you figure it out” is honest and encourages hope.

Although it may not always seem like it, your support can make an incredible difference to someone struggling with their mental health.

You don’t need to have lived or fully understand someone’s situation to make them feel better about it

What to avoid when discussing mental health

When talking to someone about their mental health, remember that they’re likely to feel vulnerable and defensive. To make the conversation as constructive as possible, there are some approaches that are best avoided.

Don’t minimise the feelings of someone suffering from a mental illness. You don’t know what they’re experiencing. Saying things such as ‘it can’t be that bad’ or ‘don’t you think you’re overreacting?’ sends the message that they’re weak or that their feelings don’t matter. Dismissing their symptoms as overreactions or suggesting they just ‘snap out of it’ has the same effect. They’ll most likely feel like you don’t understand them or just don’t care about what they’re going through and refuse to open up to you in the future.

Even if you think you know what their mental illness is, don’t give a diagnosis. Just encourage them to talk about how they’ve been feeling. Simply listening can reveal much more about their experience and emotions than trying them to agree that they’re bipolar or have an addiction. And you’re more likely to be thought of as someone who will offer support rather than judgement.

Being non-judgemental is crucial when helping someone understand their mental illness. Their thoughts and urges may be shocking, but you can’t criticise or blame them for what they’re feeling.

About twenty percent of new mothers become depressed in the first two years of their child’s life. While women who have become mothers without suffering from this type of depression (known as perinatal or postpartum depression) may be unable to comprehend that a mother could resent her new baby, they have to remember that the mother isn’t to blame. Perinatal depression is caused by a combination of hormone changes, adjusting to a new lifestyle, and the demands of caring for a newborn. Not by a lack of love for a baby.

This is just one example of how someone’s brain can work against them to make them have thoughts and feelings that they don’t want to have. If you hear something shocking from a relative or friend who has a mental illness, remember that what they’re thinking comes from the illness – not from them.

Not everyone will be willing to admit that they have a problem after one conversation.

Although discussions around mental health are becoming less and less taboo, many people still fear stigma and are reluctant to let others know about their problems. Or they could believe that they’re just going through a rough period and that they will get better on their own. These beliefs can make getting through to someone more challenging. If they are unwilling to accept that they have a condition or that they need to get help, you can wait until they seem to be in a more receptive mood and bring it up again.

Some people only feel depressed periodically, or drink more at certain times of the year. However, if their ‘temporary condition’ is having enough of an impact that you and others have noticed it, they should consider that they might have a problem that could be helped with treatment.

If you think that someone is at a risk of suicide but they aren’t willing to get help, you should tell someone. You can contact the authorities, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue at 1300 224 636. You may feel like you’re betraying their trust, but letting someone harm themselves is worse.

People are often vulnerable when they’re in a bad place mentally, so be considerate of their feelings

Encourage getting professional help

Once someone has agreed that they have a mental illness, their next step should be seeing a professional. Without treatment, mental health conditions become worse as the harmful behaviour becomes a habit and more difficult to stop. Mental health conditions don’t just go away or get better on their own like a headache or a cold. They’re real conditions that become progressively serious without proper treatment.

Learning to manage some mental health conditions on your own is possible. For example, people with anxiety can teach themselves strategies for managing their condition if they’re patient, hard-working, and committed. However, this takes much longer as professionals can teach a variety of techniques and can identify less noticeable harmful behaviours.

Some conditions, such as severe depression and bipolar disorder, are best managed with medication, in addition to counselling or therapy. Depression is caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain. This is a physical condition so someone with depression can’t simply produce more serotonin. You wouldn’t try to convince a diabetic to produce more insulin because it’s impossible, and depressed people can’t just ‘get over’ their condition if they try hard enough.

Even if someone is convinced that they can manage their condition on their own, they should at least see a professional to get a diagnosis. This will enable them to research their condition, what the management and treatments are, and hopefully realise that professional help will make their treatment much easier.

You can offer to make an appointment for them. You could even go with them to the appointment if that would be helpful and appropriate.

If someone doesn’t like the idea of an appointment for their mental health, you could suggest seeing a doctor for the physical problems their mental illness causes, like difficulties sleeping or changes in appetite.

You can also point out how their behaviour is affecting the people around them. Mental health conditions make people very introspective, so they may not realise how they are hurting others. They might think that their mental health is their business or that they can cope with their feelings. But if they realise that this isn’t the case and they’re impacting the people closest to them, they may understand that treatment is necessary.

The person you want to help simply may not be ready to get treatment when you first bring up their mental health. Accepting you have a problem can take time. So give them that time and wait for another opportunity to point out that they seem to be suffering and suggest treatment as a solution.

Although getting help early is important, don’t push someone who isn’t ready. If you keep insisting that they need treatment, they may push you away, or start putting on a brave face so you won’t bring up their behaviour. You can drag someone to treatment, but you can’t get better for them. The person with the condition is the one that will need to put in the hard work. Treatment can’t be effective if someone isn’t committed to making it work, or just pretending to be committed to please someone else. Just let them know that you’ll be there when they’re ready to get help. Unless they may be suicidal and immediate action is necessary.

Mental illnesses are isolating and challenging, so offering your support can make an incredible difference

Talking about mental health isn’t easy, and it’s only the first step in what is often a long and difficult journey towards recovery that may never have an end. But by telling someone close to you that you can see they’re suffering and enabling them to get help, you’ll be making life much easier for them and their loved ones.

I’m a professional counsellor with experience helping people to learn to manage mental health conditions. If you know someone who may have a problem, or you have a question about mental health, I encourage you to get in touch. You can send me an email or give me a call. I would be happy to answer any of your questions, and I offer a free no obligation twenty-minute phone call to anyone who may be interested in working with me.

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