The biggest impact of stigma around mental illness, or wherever stigma shows up, is isolation, shame and the feeling of being separate from the support and care of loved ones and community. What’s the biggest step toward combating stigma? It’s simple. Just reaching out with normal, caring conversation to let your loved one know you care and you’re there for them.
to talk to someone you care about who is dealing with mental illness even if you’re uncomfortable, feel awkward, or aren’t sure of the right thing to say. It’s even OK to admit that you don’t know what to say, but that you want to keep the conversation open.
to ask about your loved one’s own experiences without feeling like you have to fix it all for them, or try to make everything better. You don’t have to know everything about their illness or every possible treatment or therapy just to let them know you’re standing alongside of them.
to ask if they want to talk about how they are feeling, what they are going through, their hopes or fears or frustrations, and how things are going.
Here are a few suggestions to help you get started…
- Take the lead. If you know someone has been unwell, don’t be afraid to ask how they are. They might want to talk about it, or they might not. But just letting them know they don’t have to avoid the issue is important.
- Ask and listen. What’s the issue? Is there something bothering you? Tell me more… All of these questions and will help the person feel comfortable talking to let them and lets them know you care.
- Give information. It is important for individuals to recognize that mental illnesses are real, common and treatable. If you know what their illness might be, try doing some research to learn more about the issue. One resource for information is www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/index.html.
- Ask how you can help. People will want support at different times and in different ways, so ask how you can help.
- Avoid cliches. Phrases like “Cheer up,” “I’m sure it will pass,” and “Pull yourself together” definitely won’t help the conversation. Being open-minded, non-judgmental and a good listener will.
- Think about body language. Try to be relaxed and open. A gaping mouth, regular clock watching, or looking uncomfortable won’t go unnoticed.
- Don’t just talk about mental health. Keep in mind that having a mental health problem is just one part of the person. People don’t want to be defined by their illness so keep talking about the things that you’ve always talked about. Just spending time with the person lets them know you care and can help you understand what they’re going through.
What do you wish they had said?
Sometimes a simple question or acknowledgement is all that is needed. “How are you today? I’ve noticed you seem down.” is enough to start a conversation. We know that asking a question that you may not want to know the answer to is hard, but not asking can be more damaging.