Talking to someone about their mental health
If someone you care for is going through mental health challenges, your support can make a big difference. Being there for them, listening, and helping them find the care and support they need can play a crucial role in their journey.
Seeing the signs
It’s not always immediately obvious when someone you care about is going through a tough time. But over time you may have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, and you may notice some changes.
A few signs to watch out for:
- They seem anxious, worried, or unhappy
- Their emotions go up and down – for example, suddenly losing their temper, or crying more often
- They have changes in their sleep patterns and/or eating habits
- They stop seeing friends or taking part in social activities they enjoyed before
- They are talking more negatively about themselves, the world around them, or their future
- They’re watching too much TV, eating or drinking too much, taking part in risky activities, or skipping work, and this is happening much more than usual or getting worse.
The signs will vary depending on the person. If you think that something is not right, it’s important to check in and ask them how they’re going.
Supporting a young person
If you are a parent or guardian of a young person who's going through a tough time, it can be hard to get them to open up about what's happening. There is information that can help you support them and develop a strong relationship and communication with them.
Starting the conversation can be the hardest part. You may not be comfortable doing it. You may be nervous about how the other person might react. But there are things you can keep in mind before having the conversation:
- Find the right time
Try and find a time to talk where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. Think about how long you might need, and find somewhere quiet where you won’t be overheard.
- Have the conversation while doing something else
They may find it easier to talk while doing something else, such as going for a walk, doing an activity together, or going for a drive.
Tips on talking, listening, and supporting
When trying to help someone, encourage them to talk about what they’re going through and how they’re feeling. Use active listening skills by checking that you have heard them and understood correctly. Summarise what they’ve said or how they are feeling and reflect it back to them.
Most importantly, try to listen without judging or reacting. Even if you feel overwhelmed, try to stay calm – it will help keep them calm, too.
Some helpful phrases you could use may be:
- “I’ve noticed lately that you...”
A good way to start the conversation is to mention something you’ve observed that doesn’t seem like their usual self. Remind them that you care.
- “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
Ask questions that encourage them to talk.
- “No rush. It can be hard to talk about...”
They may not be comfortable talking yet, so give them time and space. If they don’t want to talk, that’s okay.
- “I can see how tough this is for you…”
Let them know that you care about them and how they are feeling, even if what they are feeling isn’t something you fully understand.
- “What can we do to make things better?” or “How would you like me to help you?”
Let them know that you’re here to support them. Encourage action and moving forward. Help connect them to support options.
Knowing what not to say or do
Avoid using unhelpful or dismissive phrases that make the person’s concerns seem trivial. Such phrases include:
- “I’m sure it will pass”
- “Forget about it”
- “It could be worse”
Try not to make the conversation about you; keep the focus on their story. You don’t need to offer any advice. The main thing they need to know is that you may not have all the answers, but you’ll be there to support them.
Follow up regularly; find out how things have been going since the last time you discussed their situation. Continuing your normal relationship with them is important, too. Spend time together going about your regular routine; it doesn’t all have to be about their wellbeing.
How to help someone who doesn't want help
While you may want to have a conversation about their wellbeing, the person you care for may not be ready to talk. Or maybe they’re okay talking to you, but don’t want to do anything beyond that point.
It won’t help to pressure them to talk if they are not ready. Focus on the things you can do until they are:
Spend regular time with them and remind them that when they’re ready to talk, you’re ready to listen.
If there’s a barrier, you may be able to help find a solution. For example, if they’d prefer to talk to a mental health professional instead, you could help organise an appointment.
You can offer to go with them if they see a health professional. Or you may help them through the process to find a service that is right for them. You can also offer to help look for online information and forums related to the challenges they’re facing.
You don’t have to be an expert on mental health to provide support. But you can be there for them until they feel ready to ask for help.
Are you concerned about someone’s safety?
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, or there is immediate danger to someone else, this is an emergency. You should call Triple Zero (000) and ask for police or ambulance support.
If you’re worried someone you know is going to harm themselves or someone else, don’t keep it to yourself. Take action, tell someone who can do something about the situation, and get more support.
You may need to:
- tell their partner or a close relative
- tell a trusted adult – if it is a young person you are worried about – such as a parent, teacher, or school psychologist who can help keep them safe
- stay with them and call a crisis line or mental health services for support.
Do not contact the person's regular GP or health professional for crisis support; they may not be available or qualified to deal with the emergency.
They may be angry or upset with you, but the priority is to support them and keep them safe during this risky time. Don’t forget your own safety, and take steps to stay safe.
Once the person is safe or being cared for by crisis or emergency services, you can inform their usual health care team so they can be involved in the person’s ongoing care.
How to help someone who approaches you for help
When someone you know approaches you for help, it may catch you off guard. You may not feel as prepared as you would be if you were the one starting the conversation. While you may not be able to choose the place and time for the conversation, all the other tips for having a conversation remain the same.
Looking after yourself
While caring for someone is rewarding, it can be physically and emotionally challenging. Don’t forget to take some time to look after your own mental health and wellbeing.