At a recent training, I was encouraging people to simply ask their colleagues how they are, when a participant commented that he’d never been taught how to talk to someone with a mental illness.
For me this brought home the challenge. Mental health is still something that is surrounded in mystery. For many people there is a fear of saying the wrong thing, assumptions – often incorrect – around what you can and can’t say as well as myths and stigmas that simply don’t apply. Having a conversation with someone who has a mental health issue should be no different to talking to someone with a physical ailment.
When someone returns to work after having a broken ankle, or even something more serious such as cancer, it’s natural to start up a conversation about their experience and what they’re doing now. This should be no different for a mental health condition. Having a conversation about mental health, is just that, a conversation. If someone returns from work after an illness – whether that is physical or mental – a simple conversation is a big contributor to welcoming them back to the team.
When ‘How are you?’ isn’t a simple question
Another reminder recently on how to have a conversation came from someone close to me who suffers with severe anxiety. As a mental health trainer, I knew the importance of conversations and was always asking ‘How are you?’.
How to answer that when you’re feeling really anxious can be difficult. ‘How are you’ can be seen as a question you ask someone who is well, but it’s not as easy to answer when you ask someone who has lost joy and motivation. For them, often it’s easier to lie than to answer honestly.
An easier way to engage is to start a conversation around a common interest. By chatting around what they’re doing, on a subject they’re interested in you’ll learn more about the person and how they are feeling than by putting them on the spot with a question like ‘how are you’.
Talking about Mental Health doesn’t need to be a different language. It is simply a conversation around what the person is doing, and what interests them. So, have courage, be genuine, care and then any conversation is better than ignoring someone for fear of saying the wrong thing.