#AskTwice- Starting Conversations About Mental Illness
Question: What do the following have in common?
Breaking up with somebody.
Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations with the EU.
Having to explain to your boss why you’re late for the fifth time this week, whilst knowing that ‘I was delayed at Starbucks’ is not a viable excuse.
Answer: They’re all examples of conversations that most people would find uncomfortable.
Five Minute Life Saver
Talking about mental health and mental illnesses should be as easy and comfortable as talking about having a cold or a tummy ache. However, in reality, we know that it isn’t that easy.
If you’re the person suffering with a mental illness, the stigma surrounding mental health can be stifling, with the fear of being judged often overpowering the need to open up.
On the flip side, if you’re someone who is growing concerned about a friend/relative’s mental health, it can be a difficult topic to approach. You may not know how to ask the question or you worry about saying the wrong thing and upsetting/offending the person you’re worried about.
As uncomfortable as these conversations appear to be, they are important. A five minute conversation with someone who seems to be acting differently, can sometimes be the difference between them seeking help or letting the problem fester, which we all know, can have deadly consequences.
Time to Change is a growing social movement (I will link their site/socials below) who are trying to end the stigma surrounding mental health. They’ve recently circulated an initiative, called #asktwice, which aims to encourage people to double check that their friends (even the ones who seem to be ‘fine’) are genuinely fine and give those who are struggling a chance to talk.
Time to Change Links- click buttons below to access.
Why is this so important?
Human beings are similar to the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter, i.e we try to make others see what we think they want to see. We don’t want to be seen as a ‘party pooper’, weak, crazy or feel like we’re burdening people, so we bottle it up inside and try to appear ‘normal’.
Asking twice to check if a person is definitely ok, can reassure them that you really care enough to listen, rather than just making small talk, which can be a good incentive to open up. It can also make them see that the person asking has noticed a difference in their behaviour in order to question it twice, therefore it makes more sense to explain why they’re acting differently because the ‘happy disguise’ is no longer working.
So we know WHY, the next question is HOW?
Who should we check up on?
How should we ask?
What should we say, if/when a person decides to open up to us?
How can I talk about my own mental illness?
Here is a guide that, hopefully, you will find helpful for starting and maintaining a conversation on mental illness.
1. Who should we check up on?
Simple answer: EVERYONE
Mental illnesses can affect 1 in 4 of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6ft 4, body builder with tattoos, a teenage girl, a multi-millionaire, a stand-up comedian or someone who works as a princess at Disneyland- it can affect anyone.
Obviously check up on those who may not be having an easy time lately, but also check on those who seem to ‘have it all together’- sometimes it isn’t what it seems.
Check on both your female and male friends. Men are more likely to hide or lie about their mental illnes than women, because of the stupid ‘masculine’ pressures society places on them. Ensure everyone feels that they’re being listened to and that having a mental illness defines you as much as having a common cold.
2. How do we ask the question?
It doesn’t have to be a big song and dance, in fact it’s better if you keep it normal and low key. Throw it into a conversation. Invite them round for a cuppa or for a meal.
In terms of actually starting the conversation, just the simple question ‘is everything ok with you?’ can be enough to start.
If the dreaded ‘I’m fine’ raises it’s ugly head, you could gently dig a little deeper by saying:
‘It’s just that I’ve noticed a bit of a change and I wanted to check that you’re ok.’
There you have it, you’ve asked twice. Now some people may still keep themselves guarded (or they may genuinely be fine) either way, it’s important not to put anyone under pressure to open up. Ironically this can have the opposite effect. If they don’t want to talk about it right now, you can still leave the door open by saying:
I’m here for you , if you ever need to talk.’
If you do say this- MEAN IT. If, later down the line, the person asks to talk to you, make them a priority.
3.How do you tell someone that you’re not fine?
Again, it doesn’t have to be a big declaration. Choose a person who you trust completely and simply ask if they have a minute, as there is something you need to tell them. Take your time, and slowly let that guard down and be honest.
Your friends and family care about you and, if there is something wrong, they would hat for you to be suffering in silence. Chances are, those who are close to you have already noticed a change and you explaining the situation can bring a sense of relief to you both, as it’s out in the open and you can both work together to deal with it.
What if I don’t know what to say/advise?
It can be difficult to know what to say, if somebody tells you that they’re struggling, especially if you’ve never experienced a mental illness yourself.
My advice is to avoid ‘telling them what to do’, as this can add pressure or cause irritability if the person feels they are being ‘bossed around.’
If in doubt, offering a hug, lending a listening ear and assuring the person that you’re there for them is a good start.
Following on from that, try implementing the, what I call, THREE E’S:
to attend their counselling or medical appointments, by offering to go with them, even if it’s just to sit in the waiting room.
To practise self-care, by buying them a nice toiletry set, organising a spa, inviting them for a night out (if alcohol isn’t part of the problem) or a coffee. Even helping them with a task or chore, that they may be too tired to complete alone, can be a great support.
If they cancel on you because they don’t feel up for socialising. They’re just as frustrated as you are. Keep inviting them and ensure that they know they are going to be supported when they decide to attend.
If they have a break down or get upset/frustrated.
Through listening, so they know they have an ally, around whom they can be 100% themselves.
to know that they can get through this and you’re right by their side.
Through celebrating their achievements, even if its something as simple as getting out of bed and showing up to an event, tell them it’s good to see them- feeling valued is incredibly important.
Illness Like Any Other
Talking about mental illness needn’t be difficult or dramatic. The main thing to remember is not to make it a ‘big deal’ or feel like you have to tread on eggshells around us, we’re still the same person. It’s an illness like any other.
Put it this way, if a friend/relative wasn’t feeling physically well, for example, they were experiencing terrible stomach pains, you’d follow exactly the same steps wouldn’t you? You’d recommend medical assistance, you’d be there to visit and you would offer help when needed. The support for a person with a mental illness is exactly the same.