Conversations about mental health are tough. Of all topics of conversation, this has to be THE most personal, emotional, and exposing of all.
I discovered this when my son, Theo, died. This was a tragedy that hit hard and left me with post-traumatic stress. But I didn’t talk about my mental health for four years. I tried to ‘man up’. This wasn’t a good idea because my mental health only got worse.
It took a great deal of courage to talk about my mental health. And what you’re expecting to read next is that I regret not talking about it sooner.
I’m not going to say that. Because it isn’t the case.
When I opened up about my post-traumatic stress things got worse. Over a three year period, I experienced the sort of stigma that people fear when they contemplate talking about their mental health. Things got so bad I ended up with depression on top of post-traumatic stress.
So the ‘what I wish I knew’ isn’t to do with talking about it sooner. It’s about talking about our mental health in a better way. And that’s because I learned something so amazing that I now dedicate a big portion of my life to speaking about it, training on it and coaching others.
I learned that mental health conversations are hard for those doing the listening too. Line managers, teachers, university tutors, parents, friends and colleagues. People in these sort of roles are all expected to have answers, to be able to offer an opinion or an insight. They feel a sense of responsibility. But when they are faced with complex medical conditions, when they hear the emotional turmoil of conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, self-harm and so on they are thrown out of their zone of competence and they struggle to help.
A lot of the time the poor reaction that comes across as stigma isn’t down to people being malicious or vindictive. It’s because they’re not trained or experienced in how to have a mentally healthy conversation.
It turned out that my bosses didn’t need to know the awful details about the death of my son. They didn’t need to know about the impact of it on me – the flashbacks, the ongoing freezing fear of further tragedies that could impact my family, the sleepless nights and restless days and so on. All of that is just confusing, medically complicated and emotional.
What my bosses needed to know was what sort of environment they could help create that would give me the best chance of managing my condition. This sort of conversation is far easier for both sides. For you it is less emotional and less personal – more focused on asking for practical support. For the person listening to you, they feel competent – able to give you the things you need.
Over the years that I’ve been speaking, training and coaching along these lines, the practical list of things that help has grown. I’ve seen people who are able to manage their mental wellbeing and perform well because of a range of practical adjustments. Things like having more regular feedback, more regular instruction, more autonomy to manage their own day, a different kind of feedback – constructive and honest, instruction that is more facilitative rather than directive (or vice versa), working or studying across different hours, having more regular shorter breaks, or less frequent longer breaks, operating in less noisy environments, having more social interaction, or less, and so on.
Tutors, teachers, bosses, friends, colleagues and parents – they aren’t medically trained, they cannot prescribe or cure. So put them in their zone of competence and speak to them about your mental wellbeing where the focus is on the practical things they can do to support you. Tell them what helps you have a good day, where you can manage your wellbeing and perform well.
The message is similar if you’re in the role of listener. You don’t need to solve. You don’t need to have the answers, give opinions or offer insights. You cannot have an insight into something as complex as the human brain. So relieve yourself of the responsibility and don’t try.
Instead, just give people a good listening to. Don’t judge them – accept that all they want is to be able to manage their mental wellbeing so that they can perform and be effective. All you need to do is nudge the conversation away from the emotional and the medically complex, and instead focus on the practical things that help them manage their wellbeing so that they can perform.
Ask them: “what helps you have a good day”. And then just try and give them that.