The pandemic has brought many challenges to our life and is certainly causing rising levels of emotional distress. Coupled with reduced opportunities to take part in activities which usually help us to keep our mental wellbeing on an even keel, it’s never been more important to support each other.

Although we’re often encouraged to start conversations around mental health, the reality can be quite daunting and many people feel unprepared, unconfident and worry that they will say the wrong thing and make the situation worse.

Here are nine things to consider when approaching someone who you are concerned about:

1. Ask twice.

Research shows that ‘How are you?’ can often prompt no more than a meaningless exchange. The simple act of asking again, with interest, shows a genuine willingness to talk and listen. If you’re worried about someone, the next time they say they’re fine, try asking ‘How are you really?’ or ‘Are you sure you’re ok?’

2. Ask open questions.

We can worry about prying when it comes to mental health, but it’s better to ask open questions. It might help someone to open up, and it shows that you care. Some questions you can ask are: ‘How are you feeling, at the moment?’, ‘How long have you felt like this – is it an ongoing issue?’, ‘What does it feel like?’, ‘What kind of thoughts are you having?’ and ‘How can I help?’

3. Keep conversations small and informal.

You don’t have to set aside hours to chat, 10 minutes may be enough, but make sure you aren’t distracted. Perhaps turning off your phone and minimising other distractions will help you focus on the person and what they might need. Talking when cooking or walking can take the pressure off – it doesn’t need to be a formal sit-down conversation. Although there are many restrictions at present which reduce opportunities to talk face to face, phone calls, Facetime and text messages are a good way to keep in touch and gently ask questions about someone’s wellbeing. 

4. Help them see they’re not alone.

If you know someone else who has struggled with their mental health, talking anonymously about their experiences might be a good way of starting a dialogue or you could share your own experiences, just remember the main focus of the conversation is on them and not how you would deal with situations

5. Don’t try and fix it, just listen well.

Resist the urge to offer quick fixes which can often lead to people to feeling dismissed. Often being listened to is what people really want and is often enough. Feeling heard and listened to creates a space where people can start to make sense of their experiences and choose what to do next. Give the person your full focus and listen without interrupting. Listen to their words, tone of voice and body language — all will give clues to how they are feeling. Accept them as they are and respect the person’s feelings, experiences and values, although they may be different from yours.

6. Depersonalise the situation.

It might be easier to talk about a hypothetical event rather than asking direct questions about feelings or speaking about your own. For example: ‘work can be really stressful at the moment, can’t it? This can give people permission to talk about their own feelings on the matter. 

7. Be knowledgeable about the support services available.

Perhaps offer to do some research with them or on their behalf and then give them some options to choose from. Encouraging someone to contact their GP is a good place to start or talk to other people whom they feel can support them at this time. There are many helplines available, but if someone’s confidence is low an offer of support to get some help might be very welcomed and ease the pressure.

8. Keep the conversation going.

Keep your body language open and nonconfrontational and encourage people to continue what they want to talk about by reassuring phrase, ‘Go on, I’m listening’, ‘I’m here to listen’ and reassuring nods and comfortable eye contact. It might feel a little impersonal to have these conversations online so paying particular attention to how you are responding will help keep the conversation flowing. 

9. Look after yourself, too.

Choosing to talk can make a real difference to someone’s life but it can also bring up difficult things that people may not have spoken about before. If you or someone you know might need support, organisations like Mind (mind.co.uk), Rethink Mental illness (rethink.org) and Samaritans (Samaritans.org) provide guidance and advice for anyone in distress. 

Finally, it’s really important to be patient. We can never force someone to open up about their struggles and no matter how hard we try some people might not be ready to open up and will need to do so in their own timeframe. Remember, the fact that you have tried to talk to them may make it easier for them to open up another time.

By Kirsty Lilley, mental health specialist at CABA, the wellbeing charity

CABA provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff and their close family members. Learn more about how to strengthen your mental wellbeing and support others on our dedicated hub.

If you’d like to know more about support from CABA, make an enquiry today or chat with a member of our Support team at caba.org.uk/letstalk.