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Suspect it? Talk about it

This can sometimes be the most difficult step when you suspect that a friend or family member is suffering from a mental health problem. Mental health unfortunately still has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people and so suspecting a problem can often be seen as a betrayal of a friend or family member. However, it is important to remember that this is most definitely not the case.

A person who feels they are suffering with a problem is likely to greatly appreciate having somebody to confide in and to talk to about their problem. The support of another person can go a long way in helping a person to seek treatment and to improve their lives. However, a person may not be ready to admit they have a problem, or may not feel that they have an illness. This may not sound likely but many people will have conditions that make behaviours appear normal to the sufferer who then does not feel they are ill. This is an area in which you will need to tread carefully and ensure you remain compassionate.

Importantly you should go into a conversation, with the person whom you think is suffering, with an open mind. If a person’s behaviour has changed or differs from what you feel is the norm that does not automatically mean they have a mental health problem. You may want to help them but if you go into a conversation with a preconceived idea that mental illness is definitely the cause then you are likely to interpret everything they do in the realm of mental health. This will cause frustration for everybody involved as no one will feel they are being listened to or appreciated. We would also suggest that you wait until you can talk to the person one-on-one before bringing up such a sensitive issue. Raising this point in a group, even if it is a group of people that all feel there is a problem, can be overwhelming for a person and will make them feel that they are being ganged up on. This is likely to cause the person to become defensive. You should also raise this conversation only when you both have time to actually discuss the situation, if they choose to. Starting such a sensitive conversation when either party has other commitments in the near future, such as going to work in the next hour, would be unwise as you do not want a person to feel like they are finally able to be open and discuss their situation, only to be cut off due to time constraints. This conversation is also likely to be emotionally taxing for both of you, so where possible try to have this conversation when no party is already stressed. If either of you is stressed by outside factors prior to this conversation then emotions will already be running high which will impact the usefulness of your talk. This can be hard to avoid in some cases, especially when an illness is impacting day to day life, but try to be mindful of this.

How to handle a person not being ready to talk

When trying to talk to somebody about mental health problems you have to be prepared for the fact that they may not wish to talk about this with you. It may be difficult but, if they are not an immediate danger to themselves or others, you will need to respect their wishes and try to talk with them again. It can then be difficult to decide how frequently to bring this up as you do not want to badger the person but you also do not want them being left to deteriorate. In this case you will need to monitor the situation and raise the issue again when you feel it is appropriate. As much as a person’s denial of a mental health problem may be frustrating you must try not to become angry or judgemental. Remember that the person may be ill and so cannot be held completely responsible for their outlook. It is also important to remember that if you are aggressive or angry now then the person is less likely to want to discuss the issue with you when they are ready. In fact they may feel they need to hide the problem to avoid another argument. Avoiding becoming frustrated and angry can be difficult as emotions in these situations are running high, as you want the best for the person you care about. If you feel you are getting too frustrated or are becoming angry then you would be best to excuse yourself from the situation and to try again another day.

Talking about mental illness for the first time

If a person is willing to talk with you then that is a good first step in helping the person get treatment but try not to push the person too hard. The first time you talk they may wish to discuss how they feel and may not be comfortable discussing all aspects of an illness with you. You will need to be patient and support them as much as you can. A person may never feel comfortable disclosing all the details of an illness and you should respect their wishes. Treatment may not be on the sufferer's mind when you first discuss their illness with them and may be met with some resistance when first suggested. It is important to remain compassionate through this process and to help the sufferer learn more about the process and arranging appointments. Whilst you may find that a little persuasion will be beneficial for the sufferer avoid pushing them too hard and avoid using guilt tactics. Many sufferers will already have some level of shame or guilt around having a mental health problem and by using guilt tactics you are likely to make them feel worse and to become closed off to your help. In some instances you may suspect a person is a danger to themselves and if they are not willing to talk to you about this then you may need to involve the local health services for their safety. Whilst this may feel like you are going behind their back, you will be doing this for their own wellbeing. If you are able to talk with the sufferer freely then you should discuss that this will be an option if certain behaviours change or deteriorate and you can agree with them a plan of action. It is important to talk with someone suffering with a condition and to keep them involved in the decisions made as much as possible so they do not feel like they are being controlled or victimised.

Regardless of how your initial conversation goes it is important to remember how difficult talking about sensitive issues can be and to try to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. Remember to keep all conversations private between yourselves and let the sufferer tell other people when they feel ready. Try not to put off having conversations about suspected mental health problems for too long as in this time people can deteriorate and often talking with a friend can be a good first step to recovery.

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