How are you?
We all hear it a dozen times every day. But, its likely that our answer never deviates far from the usual Fine thanks, how about you?.
At times, it can seem like were in a never-ending conversational loop, saying the same hardwired response rather than how we really feel.
Because how do you respond when youre not okay? How do you tell your friend that youve been in a dark place for a while now or that your anxiety is spiralling out of control?
One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties in our lives. Yet, research from the mental health charity Time to Change found that over three-quarters of us (78%) would tell friends and family were fine, even if we were struggling with a mental health problem.
So, lets say that you sense somethings up with a friend or a loved one. Maybe theyve become more withdrawn and are drinking more than they usually do. Or maybe something just seems off. How do you check in on them? How do you sweep aside these pre-programmed responses and find out whats really going on?
Here are just a few tips to help you start the conversation.
Look for signs of distress
Sometimes its not hard to tell that a friend is going through a rough time. Maybe theyve just been through a devastating breakup, a chronic illness is flaring up, or theyve just lost a loved one. With this sort of stress on their plate, you may already suspect (or know) that theyre not in a good place.
But, other times, its not so obvious
There are other telltale signs you can look out for though. Keep an eye out for noticeable changes in their demeanour or appearance. For instance, maybe theyve fallen off the grid and arent keeping in touch with their friends. Or perhaps, theyre looking more dishevelled and tired than usual. If something seems out of the ordinary, check in.
Time it right
Theres a time and a place for this kind of conversation. In a perfect world, you might stash away your devices, brew a cup of tea and create a cosy spot where your friend could feel comfortable enough to open up. But were still in the throes of lockdown, so this idyllic situation may not be feasible just yet. Nonetheless, there are still some ways you can put your friend at ease, even if youre checking in virtually. Pick a time when they can chat without distractions such as work or childcare. And, if youre meeting in real-life, pick a spot thats away from big crowds.
Make sure youre ready
It takes a lot of guts to share your innermost thoughts and it can feel particularly exposing if theyre dark or disturbing. With this in mind, its important that youre in the right headspace to start this conversation. After all, when youre asking someone to be vulnerable you want to make sure youre present in the conversation.
Admitting you arent okay is tough. Really tough. And so its understandable that it may be difficult for someone to open up straight away.
If you suspect a friend, family member or colleague is struggling, asking twice could make all the difference. Simply nudge them again. By asking something as simple as are you sure youre okay?, it shows that youre genuinely there for them and willing to lend a listening ear.
Weve all been there. Weve poured our heart out to someone, told them our worries and fears and theyve awkwardly scrambled to find the right words to solve our problems.
But sometimes things arent fixable.
Sometimes theres no magic potion or quick fix that can make it all better, and nothing you could say could ever really erase the hurt they feel.
You dont have to have all the answers. So dont ramble. Make sure youre really listening to what theyre saying. Because just being there for them could be all the help they need
Speak with care
This is a sensitive conversation so its best to tread carefully. Think about what youre going to say. No one likes to be interrogated and you dont want to blurt out something condescending or critical. Plus, youll want to stay clear of any cringey cliches. Instead, why not say something along the lines of You know I care about you so much And Ive noticed youve not been yourself lately.
Sometimes its less about what you say and more about what you do. So, if your friend is in a dark place and words arent enough, why not ask if theres anything practical you can do to help? If theyre grieving and arent eating well, you could offer to cook a homemade dinner. Or, if a coworker is burnt out and overwhelmed, you could offer to take on a job to alleviate their workload. In other instances though, you may not be equipped to help and thats okay. If it feels like its beyond your scope, you could even help them find a therapist. Sometimes the best way to help is to guide them towards someone who can.
Share your story
Somethings wrong with me. No one else has thoughts like these. Ill never get better. The most insidious part of dealing with mental health problems is how they make us feel so alone, like no one else could ever really understand what were going through.
But were never truly alone.
Mental health is a subject that touches all of our lives. Its likely you, or someone you know, has experienced mental health problems, whether its anxiety and depression or schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sometimes, hearing someone elses story can be all it takes to show you that itll pass. That other people just like you have been through similar and they came through the other side.
If youve faced similar mental health problems, why not consider sharing your experience? Or, if youve gone to therapy, you could explain how its helped you? The more they understand what its about, the more likely they are to embrace it with an open heart and an open mind.
Remind them how much you care
Above all else, its important to remind the person that youre checking in because you care. If they dont feel comfortable opening up just yet, respect their decision. But be on hand in case they change their mind. And reassure them that youre only asking from a place of concern.
We might worry that were prying or reading too much into things. But trust your gut. If you know something seems off with a friend or loved one, take a leap and check in with them. At worst, youre being over cautious. But, who knows, it could just be the nudge they need to get help.