Top Tips for Talking about Mental Health
Remember things have changed!
These days, talking about mental health is more normalised for young people; from YouTubers and social media influencers talking about their own struggles with mental health issues, to mental health and wellbeing being taught as part of the curriculum across U.K. schools. In other words, it might feel more awkward for you to talk to young people about mental health than it does for them!
Choose your moment
One of the first factors to consider when engaging in a difficult topic is choosing your timing. Finding a moment in which they feel open to talking is key – don’t pick a time in which they might feel rushed, ‘on the spot’ or distracted. It may feel logical to ask a young person to come sit on the sofa or at the dining room table, but this could create an atmosphere of intensity – or, even worse, like they’re in trouble! Instead, try to open a conversation when you’re in a more casual setting and with perhaps less intense eye contact! For example, when on a walk, out for dinner or in the car.
Use open-ended questions
Ask open questions, i.e., questions that don’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Open questions allow space for the person answering to talk, rather than just give a short response that could ‘kill’ the conversation. It gives them the chance to air any problems, worries or stresses they have.
Some examples of questions you could use:
How are you feeling today?
Is there anything you want to talk about?
Is there anything worrying you?
Can you tell me 3 things that make you happy?
Tell me about your friends. What do you like to do together?
This means listening beyond what is simply being said. It involves being aware of what the meaning and intention is behind the words. Pay attention to the body language of the young person you’re speaking to whilst also making sure your body language shows you’re present and listening. After they’ve finished saying something, paraphrase it back to them to show you heard and understood. Your response is important – be empathetic and let them know you hear them.
Some examples of responses you can use:
You’re feeling stressed because of pressure from school. That must be very difficult to deal with. Can I do anything that would help you?
It’s understandable that you’re feeling this way. This is a lot to try and handle – but you’re not alone. Let’s figure this out together.
Thank you for sharing that with me. I know how much this can hurt, and I just want to remind you that I am here for you and I love you.
Knowledge is power
By educating yourself on mental health, you’ll feel more confident in conversing on the topic, which will in turn be reassuring to the child or young person you’re talking to. What better day to take the time to learn about mental health than World Mental Health Day!
Emotionally and mentally prepare
When you’re talking to a child or young person about mental health or any difficult subject, whether that’s mental health issues, bullying, relationships and sex education etc., it is important to remember it only works well when it’s a two-way conversation. You want them to feel like they can be open and honest – that means you might hear things you weren’t prepared to hear, or even things you don’t like. It’s extremely important that you don’t overreact, panic or react negatively, otherwise they will likely feel discouraged to engage with you on that topic or similarly difficult subjects again.
Know your strengths and limitations
Know where and when to seek further support if you feel overwhelmed or underequipped or just need further assurance on what to do or say. See our Further Support section below for suggested support and advice organisations and charities.
Mental health isn’t always a crisis!
Although often correlated, talking about mental health doesn’t always mean there’s something very wrong, the same way the term ‘physical health’ doesn’t immediately imply there’s an illness or other health problem. Having an open dialogue about emotions provides a healthy avenue for a young person to express what they’re feeling – good or bad.
Not everyone’s a talker
For some children and young people, talking about mental health won’t be the best option. Many people prefer to express their feelings through other means, such as by writing in a journal, artistic activities like painting, drawing or writing poetry etc. You’ll find some examples of alternative options for expression in our resources below, such as our Emotions Journal.