Have you ever had one of those experiences when you just needed to talk to someone without judgement and without them trying to “fix the problem?” Maybe it was about a sensitive topic or something you were a little embarrassed about. Maybe you thought people would judge you if you discussed it. Remember how good it felt afterward even if the problem was still there? That’s the basic premise of Time to Talk Day, which recently took place on February 6.
Time to Talk (T2T) Day was established to encourage people to communicate about mental health; because when we do, the response is often like the scenario described above. Mental health topics are sometimes difficult to discuss – for both parties. If you have a friend who you think is struggling with a mental health issue, it may feel awkward or even intrusive to bring up the subject. For the person who is experiencing such problems, they may feel embarrassed or not want to burden others. This is unfortunate because both parties can benefit from a conversation and their fears are often misplaced.
People experiencing problems are often relieved when someone asks how they are doing. It shows that the listener is not afraid to discuss emotional issues, which creates a trusting environment. Even in the case of people who have thought about suicide, they are often relieved that they can discuss it. People who suspect a friend or colleague is depressed or feeling hopeless are often afraid of raising the topic of suicide for fear that they will somehow “plant the seed” that suicide is an option. In reality, if someone is in such an emotional state, they have likely already thought about it, and having someone ask about it is a relief. (For more about how to engage with and individual in crisis, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org and become Mental Health First Aid certified).
Admittedly, suicidal thinking is an extreme example, but the same process holds true for less intense emotions. Being courageous enough to ask about how others are doing and being courageous enough to trust others to listen provides benefits not just for the parties involved but for the larger environment as well. Taking steps like these helps develop supportive and trusting communities that empower people to get help when they need it.
So, there are benefits to be had by talking about mental health, but how does one do it? There is no right or wrong way, but there are some suggestions to make the experience maximally beneficial for both parties.
The easiest way to ease into these discussions is to ask questions and listen. That may seem obvious, but how the questions are asked can make a big difference. Asking people to express how they are feeling and what they are going through in an open ended and non-judgmental fashion will be most helpful. Say things like “how does that affect you” or “what is that like” and then just listen. Don’t try to steer the conversation one way or another. Remember, it’s the listening that matters ––which brings us to our next suggestion.
Just listen and don’t try to “fix the problem”. This is difficult for some because helping is equated with fixing. Certainly, if the other person asks for advice, provide it; but remember that the listening is the most important part. You can bet that the person has already considered many strategies and options, so offering more will not be as helpful or as welcome as simply allowing them to talk.
Don’t get preoccupied with finding the perfect time and place to talk. It’s been said that sometimes talking side by side is easier than talking face to face. Generally, that means the talk may best be held while the person is doing something else, e.g. driving, cooking a meal or taking a walk. Face to face conversations are great but they are not necessary for meaningful interactions to take place.
Be patient. When people open up, they are on a journey with no set deadline. Let them proceed at their own pace and be available to them as they need to talk. They may need to rehash topics you’ve already discussed and that’s okay. You can be sure that if you are hearing about something three times, it’s running through their head many more times than that.
Finally, treat them the same after you talk as you did before. They haven’t changed. What’s changed is that you now know something more about them. Remember, being treated differently was likely one of the fears they had about opening up to others, so don’t do it. They want to be accepted for who they are, emotional challenges included. Doing that makes you a safe person to talk to and will likely enhance your relationship with them.
These interactions can take many forms. Besides having a physical conversation, just checking in via email or text can be beneficial. Asking someone to lunch or coffee works, too. Be careful of asking someone to go for a drink since alcohol may be part of the problem and the effects of alcohol can disrupt health conversations. Mentally distressed coworkers are 3.5 times more likely to have a substance use disorder.
While we have been discussing T2T Day in the context of individual interactions, part of the goal of T2T is to challenge societal misconceptions about mental illness and especially the stigma associated with it. Consider how different it is telling coworkers that you have asthma or diabetes compared to discussing a mental illness. That difference is stigma. Workplaces and communities can be very helpful in changing the broader narrative about mental illness. There is a wealth of resources for organizations about how to implement T2T programs at https://timetotalkday.co.uk/download-a-pack/
For employers, developing a mental health-friendly workplace is not just an altruistic endeavor, it’s good business. Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide. Employees with untreated mental health problems consume over three times more non-psychiatric healthcare than those who get treatment. There are many good resources available for businesses who want to be more psychologically aware, including a guide from Kaiser Permanente accessible at https://business.kaiserpermanente.org/insights/mental-health-workplace/mental-health-stigma-costs
For individuals and organizations, T2T Day is an opportunity to rethink how we deal with mental illness and mental health. Use this day as the start of a new way to address these challenges with friends, loved ones and coworkers. And do it every day––not just once a year. You’ll be glad you did.