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Mental Health

4 Ways to Have a Conversation About Mental Illness

Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Tran

Mary Giliberti


Mental illness can be a difficult subject to bring up, especially if it’s the first time you’re having that type of conversation with someone. However, it’s essential to reach out to someone if they don’t seem okay. Many people with mental illness will struggle in silence for a long time before asking for help because they fear being judged or stigmatized, or they aren’t sure what they’re even experiencing.

Keep in mind that the conversation doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be helpful. If you aren’t sure how to frame the discussion, here are some tips to follow.

1. Show concern

The most important tip to remember is to be compassionate and nonjudgmental. Start the conversation by asking questions that express your genuine concern. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time alone lately. I care about you and wanted to check-in. Is everything okay?”

2. Listen

If they open up to you, make sure to practice active listening. Active listening is more than just paying attention; it also means engaging with them and making them feel heard. You can do this by rephrasing and summarizing key points back to them, making eye contact and asking clarifying questions, such as: “It seems like you’re feeling pretty isolated. Is there anything in particular making you feel that way?” The key is to show you’re listening to them.

3. Validate

Respond to them by validating their struggle. For example, “Thank you for trusting me and sharing this with me. That sounds awful. I can’t believe how much you’re going through.” Remember not to use stigmatizing language by referring to their symptoms as “crazy” or “insane.” Also, don’t define them by their symptoms or try to give them a diagnosis. Even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, it’s important to remind them that their symptoms are not their fault, and they are incredibly strong for what they’ve been facing.

4. Support

Offer your support. For example, “I’m sorry you’ve been facing this alone. I’m here for you. What can I do to help?” Make it clear that this is only the initial conversation, and they can come to you again if they need someone to talk to. If they haven’t yet, encourage them to seek mental health care or talk to their doctor or insurer about finding a mental health professional. Offer your help; recognize that you may have to offer more than once. Provide them with resources, including helpline numbers of local mental health organizations. . If you’re concerned they may be suicidal, call the suicide helpline at 1-800-273-8255 and don’t leave them alone.

If you’ve never talked to someone about mental illness before, it’s reasonable to be unsure what to say. Supporting other people can be a challenging experience, especially when you don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Just know that your support can have life-saving results, as feeling supported is critical for a person with mental illness. Even if the conversation feels uncomfortable, you are making an impact by making an effort.

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