How to really talk about your mental health

On Time To Talk Day we’re encouraged to open up about our mental wellbeing but it can be easier said than done. We asked a couple of experts how to tackle it at work, with friends and family and with your GP

Words by Clare Thorp 

Over the past decade, the way we talk about mental health has shifted massively. What used to go unspoken is now discussed by everyone from Prince Harry to Lady Gaga. On social media we share candid posts about depression and anxiety. The stigma, though not wholly gone, is slowly diminishing.

And yet, for every person who feels able to open up about their mental health, there is another who doesnt know where to start. Tell a friend, talk to your GP, let your boss know how youre feeling… for many, it can be easier said than done.

This February 6th is Time to Talk Day, dedicated to encouraging all of us to open up about our mental health. The idea is that the more normal it is to chat about how were feeling, the less likely anyone is to suffer in silence. ‘One of the key things is how do we encourage people to talk about this?’ says Jo Loughran, Director of Time to Change. ‘Whether it be with their GP, their best friend, husband, wife, or colleague.’

Knowing that talking about your mental health can feel terrifying, weve got some advice to make it a little easier

How to tell your GP

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If your mental health isnt great, going to your doctor is an important first step in getting the help you need but even if we know it’s the right thing to do, the thought of trying to articulate everything youre feeling to an overworked doctor in a five-minute appointment can be a daunting prospect.

There are things you can do to make it easier. Firstly, if youre worried about having to rush through how youre feeling, you can request a double appointment. ‘That can help take the pressure off both you and the GP,’ advises Loughran. If you dont feel your scheduled GP is the right person to talk to – perhaps youd prefer to confide in a female doctor, you are entitled to request a different one. Some surgeries have a dedicated practitioner who specialises in mental health so it’s worth double checking.

Its also useful to go prepared, says Loughran. ‘When were feeling nervous, our mind can go blank. If you’re worried you’ll get there and won’t know what to say write some things down. What you’re trying to do is to get across what life is feeling like. what the symptoms are and how long you’ve been feeling this way. It’s important to try and be as open and honest as you can.’

She also recommends packing the Kleenex. ‘When I spoke to my GP about it for the first time, I just went with tissues and started crying. That was the opener and we started from that point.’

How to confide in friends and family

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Opening up to someone you trust about your mental health can be an incredibly powerful thing to do. ‘It’s like this massive weight off your shoulders when you’re able to actually say to somebody openly and honestly: Im really really struggling at the moment,’’ explains Loughran.

She says to think carefully about who you confide in. ‘For me, that all comes down to is who do you feel you can trust with something that’s a fundamental part of who you are and what you’re experiencing? Who has demonstrated they’re open to the topic of talking about mental health and will treat what you’re telling them with respect?’

Dont feel like you have to make it an intense sit-down conversation. It can be easier to talk when youre side by side, rather than face to face – like when youre stuck in traffic or taking a walk. ‘We did some research with young people about when they would be most likely to talk about mental health and a distraction activity, when you’re doing everyday things, is helpful both for the person speaking and also the person listening.’

Another myth is that you need to chat for hours. ‘Sometimes it’s sufficient to just have landed the topic, and then you can come back to it,’ says Loughran. ‘Once you’ve opened the door a crack it’s much easier to push that open when youre both ready to have the conversation.’ When mental health pops up in the news or in popular culture, that can also be a good opportunity to start talking. ‘You can say: you know, I’ve been feeling a bit like that, too.’’

People who care about you will want to help – but dont be afraid to say you dont need advice. By saying, It’s just really helpful for you to hear and to listen’ – youre guiding the the focus of the conversation.’

How to talk about mental health at work 

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Mental health is a leading cause of sickness absence and employers are increasingly getting their act together and being pro-active in how they can help tackle it. It can feel especially scary to open up about how youre feeling at work but if it gets to a stage where youre really struggling or your performance is affected it’s better that your employer knows theres a good reason for it. Your employer has a duty of care, which means they must do all they reasonably can to support your health and wellbeing.

The best person to talk to initially is your line manager,’ says says Professor Cary Cooper, author of Wellbeing at Work and Professor of Organisational Psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School. ‘However, that boss has to be a person that you feel you can talk to. If your boss is not a good listener, or you know that he or she is not a very tolerant person and won’t listen to you then think about going to HR instead.’

Any conversation you have with HR is confidential by law – but if youre speaking with your line manager instead then make it clear if you dont want anyone else to know. Its up to you to give as much or as little detail as you want – theres no obligation to reveal more than youre comfortable with. However, Dr Cooper says it can be helpful to be honest and open. ‘I think it’s very worthwhile telling them what’s going on in your life. Think through what would help you in the context of work,’ says Cooper.’

Find a good time. Dont try and corner your boss when theyre rushing to an important meeting or up against it with a deadline. And go into the conversation with an idea of what support you need – whether that be time off for counselling appointments, more flexible hours or negotiating a day working from home. You can read more information on your rights at work on the MIND website.

* If you’re experiencing mental health problems or need urgent support, there are lots of places you can go to for help 

* Samaritans (samaritans.org): provides confidential, non-judgemental emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide. You can phone, email, write a letter or in most cases talk to someone face to face. Phone 116 123 (24 hours a day, free to call) or email: jo@samaritans.org

* SHOUT (giveusashout.org): Shout is the UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere. It’s a place to go if you’re struggling to cope and you need immediate help. Text: 85258

* Mind Infoline: (mind.org.uk): The Infoline gives confidential information on types of mental health problems, where to get help, drug treatments, alternative therapies and advocacy. Mind works in partnership with around 140 local Minds providing local mental health services. Call 0300 123 3393 (9am-6pm Monday to Friday) or text 86463. Email: info@mind.org.uk

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