How to talk about mental health
Are you concerned about a young person and not sure what to say? Do you worry that you might make things worse? Want to help them but not sure how?
It all starts with a conversation.
Even if you aren't sure quite what to say, the important thing is that you say something. Let them know that you are concerned and why. They may be experiencing anxiety or depression, or they might be struggling with suicidal thoughts. By starting a conversation and showing your concern and willingness to support them, you’re giving your young person an opportunity to share what they're going through. This can make all the difference.
Try not to take it personally if your child or young person doesn’t want to talk to you about what’s going on – but don’t give up.
Your interest shows them that you’re willing to talk about their mental health – or any problems or difficulties they’re going through – whenever they’re ready.
Having the conversation
Patience, patience, patience. You will both get through it in the end and things may even be better than they were before, like they were for our family.
Tips for getting started
Let your young person know you’re concerned and want to help. Create an environment where they can open up, and make sure you give them space to talk. You could try saying:
- “I’m really worried about you. Can we talk?”
- “I’ve been noticing that you are (sad/distant/not yourself). I am really concerned. Can we talk about what’s been bothering you?"
- “You haven’t been acting like yourself lately. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”
When a young person shares their feelings...
- be an attentive listener – sit in a relaxed position and use appropriate eye contact
- ask open ended questions to try and get them talking rather than asking questions with yes/no answers that won’t really tell you how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking
- acknowledge their feelings – try not to minimise or down-play how a young person may be feeling
- don’t jump in immediately and give advice – be calm and let them do the talking. Ask questions, but try not to bombard them!
- try to keep your reactions in check – if your young person gets a judgmental, critical, shocked or angry response from you, they’ll be much less likely to come to you with issues in the future
- remind your young person that they’re not alone – let them know that you’re there to support and help in any and every way that you can
- if you’re not sure what to say, it can help to do a little research - read up on anxiety, depression and suicide. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to help. Don’t suggest that they just “cheer up” or “pull themselves together”
- if they don’t feel like talking, try writing a note or sending a supportive message via text or Facebook
- help your young person improve their confidence by acknowledging and building on the things they do well
- be respectful of their privacy – make sure your young person is comfortable with you telling others about their experiences, whether they are family, friends or teachers etc.
- Talk with them about what information can be shared and what they would prefer to remain private.
If your young person is experiencing anxiety or depression, it will probably affect the way they think about things. They’re more likely to approach situations negatively, believing nothing much can change or that things are hopeless. Being anxious and worried can also get in the way of finding solutions. If the young person feels this way, they may need:
- encouragement to explore options for what they can do next
- reassurance that things will be OK
- to focus on small steps and achievements.
Let your young person know that support and treatment is available, and that you can work through the options together. Getting them to talk to a GP about what’s going on is a good first step. You could offer to make an appointment and go along if they want.
Become part of your young person’s ongoing support system. Check in with them frequently to see how they’re doing and to remind them that you care.
Talking about your own condition
If you're a parent or guardian with a mental health condition and need advice on how to talk to children or young people about your condition, Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) has some great resources.