What you could say to someone with mental health problems
Updated 04 September 2015
by Sarah Graham
Friday 04 September 20152110 20681
Recently we published some of our therapists' advice on what not to say to someone with mental health problems, to help you avoid saying the wrong thing or putting your foot in it. But what could you say instead? We asked some more RSCPP therapists what supportive things you could say to help someone who's struggling with mental health issues.
'I am here for you. Just let me know how I can help you'
People often assume what is best for someone with mental health problems, rather than talking to them about how it actually affects them individually. Everyone is different, and one day varies to the next. With this statement you indicate your willingness to help, as well as the fact that they are the one who knows best about their situation. You make yourself available without imposing your views.
'Let's try to understand what is keeping you sad for so long'
People suffering with mental health problems are often sensitive and may possibly read into what you are saying - and what you are trying not to say - so being honest and genuine is my suggestion. Stating the obvious is okay, as long as you normalise the not-so-pleasant emotion and let your friend or loved one know that you love them in spite of it. So you could say something like: 'I can see you are sad, we all get sad sometimes. Maybe we just need to figure out, or try to understand, what is keeping you sad for so long, so we can do something about it and you can feel better soon.'
'I am concerned about you, would you like to talk?'
My opinion is to keep it simple, show an interest, and be willing to listen rather than talk. People don't want to be lectured, they simply want to be heard. You could simply say: 'I am concerned about you, would you like to talk?' or 'I am here if you need to talk.' Remember that the person in trouble might feel hesitant about approaching you; by making the first move, with an open question, you allow them to take the opportunity and talk to you. Listen without being judgemental and opinionated. Expressing your opinion, while being empathic and showing a real effort to understand, is very important.
'It's ok to ask for help'
Lots of people are reluctant to admit that they might need some help with a mental health problem. Somehow, seeing a counsellor or a psychotherapist is something to be ashamed of - 'a bit of a stigma'. Often, this is because emotional concerns or psychological discomfort are commonly (but very wrongly) associated with the very severe mental illnesses - with 'going crazy'. The fact of the matter is, at some time in their lives, about 1 in 6 of the UK population develop some sort of an emotional or a psychological issue that is sufficiently troubling to be considered 'of clinical interest'. However, they are far from being 'mad' or 'oddballs'. They are certainly not 'crazy'. They are simply people who, just for now, are finding life is getting a bit too difficult to handle without a little professional help. Consulting a psychotherapist, a psychologist, or a counsellor just means that you need a bit of help. That's all - nothing more. You don't need to feel ashamed or think that the world sees you as a failure. In fact, asking for help means that you have been honest enough to accept that you have a problem and courageous enough to want to try do something about it.
'Help me to understand'
You could say things like: 'I really want to be there for you, and to know how it feels. Can you help me to understand it better?', 'I guess things can feel really overwhelming at times, what's it like for you?', or 'I'm sure I'll never truly know what it's like to walk in your shoes, but I do want to understand as best I can. Will you tell me what you're going through?' What each of these approaches have in common is that they position you as caring whilst not fully understanding, which probably more truly reflects the state of things: we are all ultimately alone in our own heads. These approaches also imply that you appreciate the individual is an expert in their own experience, that they have something to offer, and that you want to learn from them. This contrasts with approaches which are based on offering your own expertise, trying to make things better, or simply asking what's needed. Whilst such approaches are undoubtedly well-intentioned, they can risk leaving someone who is struggling feeling even more unable to change things.
'Let me support you in any way you feel is appropriate'
Life changing issues come in many forms, such as divorce, illness, or bereavement, and if you don't personally understand the problem it can be hard to find the words or feelings to express what you want to say. Mental health issues can arise out of these issues and many more, or it may simply be that the person is not coping as they would wish. The person suffering often feels isolated and perhaps won't or can't believe you really do want to listen. They may feel it's only words, so perhaps the following could help: 'Let me support you in any way you feel is appropriate. Help me to help you if you will let me', 'Please hear me when I say I am here whenever you need to talk', 'I will ask how you are regularly so you feel you can trust I mean what I say', 'If I am intrusive, please let me know', or 'Just tell me as much as you are comfortable with'.
'Do you want to talk about it?'
When someone you know is having difficulties with their mental health, it's a good idea to gently check out whether they want to talk about it - never put pressure on someone to talk if they really don't want to. Most likely they will first be trying to get a sense of whether you are a safe person to confide in, who won't ridicule or belittle their feelings. If you genuinely want to listen to them in a compassionate and accepting way, that's great. Remember to make the space for them to talk about their particular and unique situation - don't jump in with tales of what your auntie/sister/colleague did when she had mental health problems. Keep your mouth zippered for a while and your ears and heart open!
If you are concerned that someone you know may be struggling or could benefit from therapy, read our therapists' advice on how to help.
If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you
. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.