I have been fortunate enough never to have experienced mental health issues at first hand. That’s not to say I never will, but not so far. So you might wonder what I’m doing writing this blog for the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day.
Before I took early retirement and became a photographer I worked for some 30 years in Human Resources, where I saw – and I guess participated in – mental illness being managed with varying degrees of success. More recently, a number of people close to me, including my business partner and friend Lisa, have spoken and written openly about their own mental health, and I like to think I have learnt something along the way about how to be a good friend and colleague.
Last year Lisa and I ran the Open Shutters project and exhibition, asking people to have their portrait taken and say something – in writing or to camera – about how they have turned their mental health issues to their advantage, and to offer advice to others in a similar situation. Without fail, that advice involved the vital importance of finding someone to talk to and not keeping things bottled up. If you’d like to read more about the Open Shutters Project, click here.
So with that experience and, I hope, improved understanding, here are my tips if you have friends, family or work colleagues who are experiencing mental health problems, and you’ll almost certainly know someone in that situation, whether or not you’re aware of it.
- Listen! If the need to talk to someone is critically important for people with mental health issues, then it’s equally important to have someone to listen. Actually listen. Not half an ear while you’re checking on Facebook or posting a picture of your lunch on Instagram. There’s a useful guide to Active Listening here . It’s skill that will improve with practice, so give it a try. You’ll have better conversations, and people will know you care enough to give them your undivided attention.
- Be prepared for the conversation to take up some of your time, and give that time freely and ungrudgingly. If you’ve ever tried talking to someone who is constantly looking at their watch, you’ll know how uncomfortable that can make you feel.
- Go easy on the questions. Active listening may involve asking some questions to ensure you’re understanding what you’re hearing, but that’s not the same as bombarding your friend or colleague with demands for further details. Often people will have deeply personal issues that they don’t want to talk about. If they do choose to open up, that’s fine, but you don’t have a right to be told anything.
- People may cry: deal with it. If someone is upset, and cries when they’re talking to you, just let them, it’s OK. Don’t tell them not to cry, or not to get upset. The last thing they need is to think that they are behaving inappropriately, or upsetting or embarrassing you. Just offer them a tissue and carry on listening.
- Not every problem has a solution. When we’re told that someone has a problem, it’s our instinct (particularly men) to suggest a solution or to offer to fix things. Resist that temptation. Let the person talk things through: generally if your advice is required, it will be asked for.
- Big hugs hun! I’m a hugger, but not everyone welcomes being hugged, or having their hand held etc. If in doubt don’t, and if it’s not wanted, don’t take that as a personal sleight.
- It’s not about you! If your friend or colleague cancels on you at short notice, or wants to sit quietly in circumstances where you’d expect them to be chatty, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you any more, or are cross with you. They’re just coping the best they can. They know you’re there for them, and if you’ve done your job as a friend well, they’ll reach out to you when they’re ready.
- Don’t panic! My final piece of advice – given to me by a friend – is not to panic that because they are going through a difficult episode, they’re at risk of harming themselves or someone else. Remember that the person who knows most about someone’s mental health is the person themselves. They will have their own strategies for coping and will know when things are serious enough that they need a professional intervention.
World Mental Health Day is a good opportunity to reflect on how we can help those around us who need our care and support. Understanding that that can sometimes involve doing nothing more than giving them space can be difficult but may be the most important thing that they need just at that moment. I’d love to get your feedback on anything in this blog, whether it’s to agree, disagree or add something I’ve missed out.
Thank you for taking the time to read it.