How to Support Someone with Mental Health Issues

how to support someone with mental health issues

We’re all more aware of the heavy toll poor mental health can take. Concepts like self-care, mindfulness and burnout are all familiar to us now. But knowing how to support someone with mental health issues is still tricky.

Our guide explains how you can offer colleagues, friends and relatives support during tough times. You’ll find advice on approaching difficult conversations, reassuring the people you care about and recognising when professional help might be needed.

Knowing When Support is Needed

Much of the modern mental health discourse is focused on the self, leaving many of us struggling to find the words or strategies to support others.

And the UK is still very much a nation of stiff upper lips. Honesty and emotional openness don’t come easily to the average Brit; a half-hearted “I’m fine” might as well be a refrain in our national anthem.

This aversion to talking about mental health with each other might also partly explain why the UK’s mental health is in decline. A report from the Global Mind Project, which compares mental wellbeing in nations worldwide, revealed the UK has the second worst overall measure of mental health. (Uzbekistan was the only country to ‘beat’ us.)

It’s obvious more of us need help than are willing to admit it. Understanding how to support someone with mental health issues is now just part of being a good friend, partner, relative, colleague or even teacher. But how do you know to offer that support when people aren’t asking for it?

There’s no simple answer. We don’t wear our mental health struggles on our sleeves, and our first instinct is often to deny them when asked directly. But trust your feelings. If you’re close to someone, you can usually tell when something’s wrong and help is needed.

Support in the early stages of a mental health problem can also prevent it from escalating, but this shouldn’t be the goal. Don’t try to launch an early intervention. Instead, just be a good friend, colleague or partner and give the person struggling the opportunity to talk.

And it might take you asking after them multiple times before they respond honestly. Don’t push too far, but be ready to ask, “How are you?” more than once before you get the truth.

knowing when support is needed

Understanding How to Support Someone With Mental Health Issues

Talking about mental health with someone who’s struggling is often the best thing you can do. But it can be challenging.

Here, we’ve collected a few guidelines you can follow to help put people at ease and make conversations productive.

Mental Health Awareness Training

Our Mental Health Awareness Training course develops an understanding of common mental health issues. It explores how and why people might suffer from poor mental health and the ways we can improve and protect our mental wellbeing.

Listen More Than Talk

Giving your conversation partner time, space and your undivided attention is essential, so let them do the talking and actively listen when they do.

Active listening is a technique you can use to really hear what someone is trying to say. It also proves you’re paying attention and making an effort to understand the other person’s concerns. They should feel encouraged to speak more and reveal what’s really at the root of their problem, something which might not even be apparent to them until they’ve had the opportunity to talk it through.

Even if you don’t reach a breakthrough, actively listening proves you care about what’s being said and, more importantly, the person saying it. Making someone feel cared for is often the first, best way to support them through a mental health problem.

listen more than talk

Validate Their Feelings

Although you want your partner to talk more, you shouldn’t be silent. When they talk frankly about their feelings, make them feel validated, even if you can’t relate to their situation.

Talking openly makes you vulnerable. If you dismiss your conversation partner’s emotions or make them feel as if they’re wrong, they’ll almost definitely stop speaking to you. It might also take a while to rebuild trust and convince them to drop their guard again. And in that time, they’ll be suffering or turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Making someone feel ok about their emotions is an essential step towards recovery. It reassures the person that their problems are not irrational or insurmountable and that there will be a path forward.

Only Offer Advice When It’s Asked For

There’s another reason you should spend more time listening than talking.

It’s natural to want to jump in with advice when someone confides in you. Seeing someone you care about struggle is hard, so you go into problem-solving mode. Unless you’re a trained counsellor or mental health professional, this is a bad idea.

People are rarely seeking opinions when they’re talking about mental health problems. They’re deeply personal and can’t be beaten with rational thinking.

Focusing on finding a ‘solution’ risks alienating the person sharing their feelings. It also shifts focus to the problem, not the person experiencing it.

Ask How You Can Help

This might seem to contradict the previous point, but sometimes people want more than just to be heard.

If you feel the other person would be receptive to it, ask directly how you can help them.

They may not have an answer, which is fine. You’ve still shown you’re on their side and willing to support them beyond listening. Or, you may give them the green light to be honest about their needs, which is something a lot of us struggle with (stiff upper lip, remember).

Accept If They Don’t Want to Talk

Sometimes, the closer we are to someone, the harder it is to be honest with them.

Hearing someone you’re close with admit they’re depressed or anxious can make you feel as if you’ve failed them on some level. The person you’re worried about will be aware of this and may avoid talking to you in an effort to protect your feelings.

Accept that, as long as you feel that person isn’t in immediate danger, they may take some time to open up or may never speak to you frankly. Remind them you care and perhaps suggest they speak to a professional removed from their family or social circle.

Recognising When Professional Help is Needed

It can be difficult to recognise when professional help is necessary. But it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you feel out of your depth, you probably are, and it’s time to involve a trained counsellor or medical practitioner.

And don’t feel guilty for recommending professional help. You’re not abandoning the person you care about. Sometimes, professional treatment is best for them and your relationship.

Make it clear that your suggestion comes from a compassionate place, though. Explain that you care and, because you care, you want your loved one to get the help they need to recover. But do reassure them that you’ll support them the whole way.

Suggest they contact their GP directly or through the NHS 111 service.

Helping in an Emergency

If someone has hurt themselves, approach the situation like any other emergency.

Focus on the immediate needs and contact the emergency services. Administer first aid as best you can until professional help arrives.

If you suspect someone is going to hurt themselves or attempt to take their own life, urgently refer them to a suicide prevention service like the Samaritans or Mind’s helpline.

Protecting Your Own Mental Health

Worrying about your loved ones can affect your own mental health. You might also feel guilty if you’re unable to help in any obvious way.

Remember, you can’t ‘fix’ mental health problems. They take time and ongoing effort to manage.

You also aren’t solely responsible for someone else’s mental health. Unless someone is suffering from a severe mental health condition, they have some accountability to look after themselves. There are also professionals out there who are trained to help others through difficult times.

And don’t forget: you’re still allowed to feel good, even if loved ones are struggling. Plus, if your mental health is in a good place, you can offer better support.

Mental Health Training

Most of the advice in this guide is relevant for talking about mental health with loved ones. But what about the workplace? Work-related stress is an issue for many of us, and as a recognised hazard, employers need to take steps to manage it.

Our Mental Health Awareness Training helps promote empathy and openness at work. It offers practical advice on how to support someone with mental health issues without crossing professional boundaries. It also helps others understand what it’s like to struggle, breaking down stigma and making it easier for people to seek support. Finally, it covers how to protect your own mental health when under pressure.

About the author(s)

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Jonathan Goby
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