Whether we recognise we’re struggling, or recognise someone else may be struggling, speaking up might seem daunting, in any environment.
For physical health matters, illnesses, or injuries, we’ll visit the doctor or appropriate professional. By what about mental health matters? Anything can affect our wellbeing such as life events, personal, college, work, loss of any kind, relationships, friendships, bullying and can be difficult conversations to have.
However, left unaddressed, our mental health could deteriorate. The ripple effect could impact physical health, family, friends, learners, aspirations, hopes, dreams and our reputations too. Others may have a negative impression of us, and avoid, isolate or not want to be around us. Talent scouts, interviewers, clients, may bypass us. You might be trolled on social media.
Rather than struggling, suffering in silence, getting stressed or risking others misunderstanding you from, say, behavioural changes, it makes sense to have ‘that’ conversation. The same applies if you see someone else struggling too.
There’s no right or wrong way to have a ‘courageous conversation’, and there’s always your tutor you can talk to. Read on for some ideas.
Being honest with ourselves when we’re not our ‘normal’ self, is a huge step forward. Things may be going on in our personal or professional lives. Someone may have had said something about us, or a comment has us thinking. Someone’s behaviour or attitude is affecting us. We may have ‘difficult’ clients.
Regardless of cause, our learning, success, enjoyment and pleasure can be affected, let alone our futures.
We’re all being encouraged to talk mental health matters. Yet, our well-being, physical or mental health, is still a private matter for many. We may self-help, or seek help, support and manage the recovery, or ongoing condition, with help from medical professional(s). Sharing with others often means better understanding, support, lessens rumours, gossip, bad feelings etc, so in many circumstances it’s appropriate, even necessary.
Balancing sharing with privacy can be a dilemma. A helpful reminder is that this is about talking with someone, not talking with everyone about everything, and how much you share and who to, is also a matter of choice.
Have a chat with yourself. What’s going on? What/how do I feel? What do I need? What do I want or would like to have happen? What are my choices, actions? Who could I talk to? Would self-help, or life-style changes work?
Accept/admit help and/or support is needed. As you would for a physical health matter.
Remember privacy choices re how much or how little you share.
Take action, for example:
For any conversation, informal or formal:
Prepare. Be as clear as you can what you’d like, how much to share, and what you need, want. Even write it down if that helps.
Listener empathy. Mental ill health conversations are hard for the listener too if they’re not mental health professionals. There’s often a sense of responsibility to offer, say, opinions, insights, advice, solutions, fixes, guidance, ideas. Remember then that perhaps your perceived poor reactions, disinterest or indifference to what you’re saying, isn’t from any malintent or lack of compassion. It might simply be they’re struggling hearing details, don’t know what to say, more importantly, what to do. They want to do the right thing but don’t know what that is. They don’t want to make matters worse, by saying the wrong thing. The conversation can feel awkward, and misunderstandings then often arise.
Keep it light. This will help you both as conversations become easier on both sides.
Choose a time, location and situation that’s right for you, where you feel comfortable, able and OK to talk. Eg. over a tea/coffee, on ‘phone, or face to face, TEAMS.
Do you prefer to pre-advise you’d like to talk? by text, email or private social media.
Once prepared, waiting for a conversation opportunity to evolve rather than gearing up to make it happen, is often easier and more productive. However this will depend on context and choice of formal or informal meeting.
Breathe. Slow, deep breathing, with equal in and out count that works for you, are calming in many ways. Before and during the conversation too.
Perhaps have that ‘special thing’ with you that gives you strength; a lucky charm, piece of jewellery, or something you feel good in.
Perhaps have someone with you, who you trust and for moral support.
Be specific, how the other person can help & support you. You might simply want to share your situation, be heard, believed, or listened to. Or you may like more practical support. This approach is particularly helpful in any employee/employer relationship.
Conversations then become easier on both sides. For you, it’s less emotional, personal and reduces the dilemma how much/little to say, placing focus on practical support. For the listener, whilst they cannot cure or fix, they often feel more comfortable and competent when able to focus on appropriately practical ways to help and support you.
Speak from the I position. Taking ownership of your thoughts, actions, emotions etc puts you in [self]control. It helps reduce the risk of a conversation becoming negative when ‘you’ is used, as that can be misconstrued as accusatory and potentially causes defensiveness and conflict. EG I am feeling, thinking …. rather than You did this, you are this, you have this. A useful technique too when explaining the impact of another person’s behaviour on you that they might be unaware of.
Simple 3-step technique is a good starting point. Sharing your whole story, explaining or giving all details is unnecessary. Would you do that for a physical illness! You choose how much/little to share. Try:
What I have / feeling right now is…:
[the actual reality; whether a diagnosis or not; what’s going on]
What that means is……:
[the implication/impact of this is]
What I require/what I’d like is…….:
[what support do you need exactly]
Be ready for questions, or none at all. The person you’re talking to might have several questions or need further information to help them better understand what you’re experiencing and what you need. Remember, these questions are helping them to fully understand the situation, so they can find the best way forward with you. Avoid misinterpreting questioning as being asked to justify yourself.
There may be no questions at all. This does not mean they’ve not heard, listened or don’t care. Avoid mindreading them! They simply may be knowledgeable, accepting what you say on face value, and focusing on finding the best way to support you.
You may notice, sense or are concerned about someone. Perhaps another learner, or someone dear. You’ve ‘spotted’ they are, perhaps, behaving differently and not themselves. You want to do the right thing, but don’t know what to say, how to say it, do, or how to help. You may worry you’ll make things worse by raising it or saying the wrong thing. All too often nothing is said.
However, research shows that:
Raising the subject of someone’s changed behaviour, performance, attitude or their well-being can be uncomfortable and awkward. However, understanding the ripple effect of poor or deteriorating mental health, conversations are place to start. We have some informative FAQ’s to help you.
Say hello. Simple, yet acknowledgement is so important; if you used to say hello and pass the time of day with someone who’s now struggling – clinically diagnosed or not – then continue to do so. People often need to feel a sense of normality.
Choose a good time, location and situation. Trust your intuition to pick a good moment. Perhaps lunchtimes, in between classes, over a cup of tea. Make sure you’ve time, put tech to one side and are fully present during the conversation. Cutting someone off when you’ve instigated the conversation is unhelpful.
Ask Twice, even Thrice…. if you suspect someone might be struggling with their
mental health. The simple act of asking again, with interest, can help someone to
open up, getting past the initial platitude of eg ‘I’m fine’.
Have a conversation. There’s no right or wrong. It’s a conversation. It might feel awkward or clunky because of the topic, but it’s still a conversation.
Speak from the I position. You then own your thoughts, actions, observations etc. , This helps reduce the risk of conversations becoming negative when ‘you’ is used. For example ‘You did …./you are…’ can be perceived as accusatory, leading to defensiveness. So try these:
What I’ve noticed lately is that… [you’re not your normal self; you seem…; you’re riding’s lost focus; you’re rushing the fences ]
My experience of you recently is….[you’ve become rather touchy; a bit short tempered; a bit careless/forgetful…]
I’ve observed ……[you seem quieter than usual; you’re spending a lot of time on your own, you don’t want to ride with us anymore]
Keep it light. People are often afraid to talk about mental ill-health because they don’t know what to say or how to express themselves. This approach benefits both. Your aim is to signpost to appropriate help, not probe, nor push them to share their story, nor find solutions.
Listen is one of, if not the most important thing you can do. IF they share their story, listen, however painful. Remain present, engaged and focused. This may be the first time someone’s listened.
Focus on action not their story helps you manage the listening better. You focus on signposting support rather than getting stuck in the story’s detail.
Respect they’ve trusted you. For someone to feel they can trust you with their story, is an accolade. Treat what they tell you with the utmost sensitivity, integrity and confidentiality; no gossiping or carelessly dismissing.
Talk about ‘normal’ stuff too. Your learning, what they’re up to, how they’re getting on. Because they’re going, or have gone through, mental health issues doesn’t mean they’re no longer interested in others or other things. If they’re willing to, then engage with them on these levels. This often brings a sense of normality too and can pause, park their negative thoughts/emotions giving them valuable ‘breathing space’ for a while.
Mind what you say. Avoid things like ‘It’s all in your head’, ‘Other people have it worse’, ‘You’ve nothing to be depressed about’. If it was as simple as ‘thinking positively’, mental illness would be cured long ago! Accept too they may not know how they feel, unable to express or articulate it. And avoid conversations becoming a competition.
Signpost them to RTA’s wellbeing site. Knowing this support exists boosts your confidence too to talk to another, because you can signpost them to get help. People are often capable of getting help, they just need to know how and where it is.
Look after yourself. Make sure you get the support you need.
What’s the worst that can happen? You get a negative or defensive reaction, you might be clearly told to go away, but that won’t kill you! If you ask in a kind, caring, authentic way (not nosey, intrusive) often the recipient can sense your compassionate intention.
Signpost them to their tutor(s) and RTA’s wellbeing site anyway. You know then you’ve done the right thing and, you never know, they might just seek the support they need.
Remain available, supportive and ready should they change their mind and want to talk. You might feel frustrated, powerless but it’s important to accept their choice.
Keep in contact. Supportively check in with them from time to time. See how they’re getting on.
Better to act than ignore; better to say something than nothing – you may just be
How to deal with these situations? What to say, what to do? Feeling awkward or even wanting to escape is common. However, such reactions are unhelpful and often detrimental to the person, reinforcing why they don’t talk.
Remember, it takes courage for someone to share their struggles. So:
Respect they’ve trusted you. Treat what they say with the utmost sensitivity, integrity, privacy and confidentiality; no gossiping or carelessly dismissing.
Be human. No special training is required to show compassion and care.
Give them your time. Might be awkward timing for you but language such as ‘I’m busy at the moment’, ‘I can’t talk right now’ can seem dismissive and be detrimental to the person (who’s trusted you). No clockwatching either. If you really need to, set a later time to talk and stick to it.
Listen and listening is often enough. Remain present, engaged and focused throughout. This may be the first time they’ve been heard.
Mind what you say. ‘It’s all in your head’, ‘Other people have it worse’, ‘that’s ridiculous’, ‘You’ve nothing to be depressed about’, are unhelpful.
Keep it light/focus on action. Your focus is to listen, give them time and then signpost to appropriate help. It’s not to rush, probe, get stuck or explore their story if they share it. Nor fix or find solutions.
Body language and voice.
Be very aware of this while speaking with someone. Conveying negative vibes, body or voice language to someone who’s trusted you, risks shutting them down with potentially huge detrimental effect. Remain open, engaged, warm, maintain soft eye contact and pay attention. If they get emotional, remain present, and wait patiently for them to compose themselves and continue.
Signpost them to RTA’s wellbeing site for further support, particularly Get Support section.
Encourage them to talk to their tutor.
Keep in touch Supportively check in with them from time to time. See how they’re getting on.
Talk about ‘normal’ stuff too. This often brings a sense of normality.