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How to Have Conversations about Mental Health with Loved Ones

how to talk with loved ones about mental health

Nearly 53 million U.S. adults suffer from some type of mental illness. One of those people could be someone you know and love. When mental health issues go untreated, the results can be devastating. If someone in your life is dealing with a mental illness, would you feel comfortable talking with them about it?

The recently launched Face the Issue campaign provides advice on how to address mental health concerns and guidance on how to start a conversation about mental health with a loved one.

The first step in starting this type of conversation is acknowledging there’s something wrong. For example, a family member or friend begins withdrawing and spending more time alone instead of participating in plans they once enjoyed or cancels on group activities. This could be a sign of mental health issues.

“These sorts of shifts, although they may seem insignificant, if they go on for a length of time, then the person probably is beginning to change in terms of the way they feel about themselves and the world around them, so that’s the time to begin to engage,” said Peter Whybrow, M.D., chair of the department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA and an advisor to the Face the Issue campaign.

Once you’ve noticed a shift in a loved one’s behavior or appearance, it’s time to address your concerns with them. Find a private space where you can talk and mentally prepare a list of things you’ve noticed that you would like to discuss.

If the conversation progresses, make sure to really listen to what they have to say and offer support. If it feels appropriate, share your experience dealing with a personal hardship. Encourage your loved one to seek care from a mental health professional. The most important thing is to remain judgement-free throughout the conversation.

“You run the risk of them completely shutting down,” said Mike Myers, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. “Even if you are frustrated, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. You might say something you’ll regret.”

If the conversation ends up spiraling into conflict, it’s ok to take a break and follow up later. If you feel like your loved one might harm themselves, suggest professional help.

After the initial conversation, it can be challenging to approach the subject again. If the person seems to be doing better, gently point that out and ask them how they’re feeling. If you notice that the person’s demeanor has gotten worse or remained the same, ask them if they’ve utilized some of the strategies you suggested in your first conversation.

During these follow-up conversations, remind them of your support and ask if there is any way you can help.

If you think someone is going to harm themselves, it is necessary to step in. One way to help is to offer to dial into a suicide hotline with them. The National Suicide Prevention hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Learn more about having this type of conversation and how to follow-up.

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