How should we talk about mental health?

A NAIT student and Mental Health First Aid instructor offer insight and advice

If someone is struggling with their mental health, do you know how to react? What to say? What to do?

In an effort to comfort, many people will go in for a hug, but NAIT student Asma Iqbal (a grad since this story was first published: Bachelor of Business Administration ’18, Human Resources Management '16) says be cautious. She suffers from anxiety, and when overwhelmed she has difficulty breathing. A hug is out of the question.

“While the sentiment is nice, it can also make that person much more scared or anxious,” Iqbal says. “Look for their physical cues. It’s really important to know what they want.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, each year one in five Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness. By age 40, about 50% of the population will have or had a mental illness.

“Ask yourself, do I have an awareness of mental health problems or disorders, so I’m not stigmatizing other people?” says Catherine Meunier, facilitator of the Mental Health First Aid course at NAIT.

Asma IqbalIqbal, who is vice-president of operations for the institution’s club, which encourages youth to talk about mental health, says everyone should work to educate themselves and reduce stigma.

Here are some tips to consider when speaking to someone about their mental health.

Check your body language

You want the other person in the conversation to be comfortable, says Meunier. They may be feeling vulnerable. Try sitting, since that can be less confrontational than standing.

“Keep an open posture, with non-crossed legs and keep your arms uncrossed,” she says. “Sometimes direct eye contact can be confrontational as well.”

“I’m not what I suffer with. It’s unfortunate when people associate you with what you struggle with.”

Avoid labels

“If you’ve heard someone say, ‘That person is bulimic’ or, ‘That person is schizophrenic,’ they’re labelling them by their mental health disorders instead of them being a person with that disorder,” says Meunier. Not only can that contribute to a loss of identity for the individual, it contributes to the stigma around mental health disorders.

There are so many similarities between physical and mental health, Iqbal says, yet someone is unlikely to be labelled as “glasses” just because they can’t see as well. Mental health conversations should go the same way.

“I’m not what I suffer with,” says Iqbal. “It’s unfortunate when people associate you with what you struggle with. There’s so much more to a person. It doesn’t define you.”

Really listen

mental health first aid

“Generally, we think we are really good listeners and it’s easy to do,” says Meunier. That’s not often the case.

She recommends assessing whether or not you’re actually hearing and comprehending what the other person is saying.

“Get rid of all your thoughts and just be silent,” she says. Being a good listener also means doing so without judgement or interruption.

This conversation isn’t about you, and your interjections could cause the person to stop sharing.

“We try and fix the problem without understanding what the issue is,” Meunier says. “Just allow them to talk.”

Watch your words

When you do speak, be positive but careful with your words, says Iqbal.

“A lot of people will say, ‘It’ll get better’ or, ‘You’re going to be fine,’” she says. “That’s nice to hear, but it’s not effective. You can’t do anything with that statement.” It can often leave the person feeling more helpless or like they’re not being heard.

“I like hearing things like, ‘It’s okay that you’re not okay’ and, ‘I’m here to support you,’” she says.

Educate yourself

Learn how to provide initial support, what to say and how to make others feel comfortable when they’re discussing their mental health, Meunier says. Mental Health First Aid is offered at NAIT and through the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Iqbal has taken the course and recommends it to family and friends. The lessons she learned helped her with her work at and in day-to-day life.

“Even though you may not have a mental illness, you still have to take care of your mental health,” she says.

Offer resources

mental health first aid cards

Many organizations and hotlines provide support for mental health disorders. This list from the local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association is a great place to start.

Meunier says you should always try to provide that information to someone discussing their mental health, when the timing is right. You’ll need to gauge how they’re reacting.

“It should be somewhere in the conversation,” she says. “If it’s a crisis situation, then it should be a follow-up thing. When you see them again, when they’re not in crisis, that’s when I would provide those additional resources.”

You may realize that you’re not the person they need. “If they’re not responding well, ask them who they would like to talk to about these things,” she says. If another person may be a better fit, help them find someone.

How to talk about mental health with different people

A stranger

“You almost have to build a rapport,” Meunier says. “They’re talking about intimate details, and you’re not familiar with the individual.” Get to know them the best you can. Ask questions about their life and share something about yours. Try and understand who they are throughout your conversation, then offer further resources.

A loved one

Don’t assume you know how they feel since you know them well, she says. Everyone is dealing with something different. Let them speak about what they’re going through. “Keep an open mind,” she says.

A colleague

This may differ depending on how well you know them, says Meunier. The biggest thing to remember to show that you’re coming from a considerate place. “Say that you’re there to help or you have a concern and that it comes from a caring perspective and not a judgmental one.”

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