Speaking to mental health

Most of us are aware of the difficulties many Australians face with maintaining their mental health.

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Where we’re at

Most of us are aware of the difficulties many Australians face with maintaining their mental health.

COAG defines a mental illness as ‘a clinically diagnosable disorder that significantly interferes with a person’s cognitive, emotional or social abilities’ (COAG 2017), but you don’t need to meet clinical criteria for a mental disorder to experience negative effects from poor mental health. Apart from affecting the quality of day-to-day life, ongoing anxiety or depression can result in social disconnectedness, substance abuse, physical comorbidities and suicidality (AIHW 2020).

Life dissatisfaction, particularly given the challenging degree of uncertainty during 2020, affects an increasing number of Australians from a variety of backgrounds. It’s highly likely that you’ll know of someone who’s doing it tough, be that at work or university or even quietly in your own friendship circle; in 2018, a national ABS survey found that 1 in 2 Australians had experienced a mental disorder in their lives, while 1 in 5 Australians had experienced symptoms in the past 12 months (ABS 2018).

It’s important to equip yourself with some of the tools required to recognise and have a conversation around mental health, to help encourage wellbeing in yourself and in other people.

Observing change

You’ve got a pretty good idea of how your friends usually are; the things they do with their day during the week, the way they like to spend their weekends, their drinking habits. It won’t always be obvious when someone might need support, but changes in routine or in habits are subtle signals that something might not be quite right. Depending on how well you know the person, a range of signals might highlight a way to help.

You might find that the things people do or say give their mood away; have they become agitated, withdrawn, or seemingly bitter? Have they started talking about the future, or become concerned that they feel like a burden on people? Are they drinking more often? Or – maybe they just seem tired or disinterested, and not their usual selves. 

What’s going on in someone’s life might be a more obvious signal to prompt checking in. Traumatic incidents, financial or general stress, a change in work or living circumstances, relationship issues; if you catch wind of change, it might be worth a chat.

Reaching out

If someone you know is doing it tough, they might not be comfortable with talking about it. Everyone’s different, but it’s not always easy to open up. People set high standards for themselves and might not even realise where they’re at. Some take offense to just being asked about their mental health. Your concerns could also be a total swing and miss. Generally, starting a conversation is a positive first step. Make sure you pick your moment and approach the topic with care; be relaxed, be genuine, and help them to unwind if they’d like. 

You can start by speaking to the changes you’ve noticed, and you can go from there. These conversations should be authentic and encouraging, and not confrontational. Don’t rush them – listen attentively, with an open mind, and make an effort to be patient. Try to understand what they’re telling you and try not to interrupt – silence isn’t something to be afraid of. Make it clear you’re only asking because you’re concerned and don’t feel like you need to persuade, provide concrete solutions, or ‘fix’ the problems they’re facing.

What next?

At the end of the day reaching out to someone isn’t always going to end neatly in one conversation. There are no guarantees and no silver bullet to complicated situations, but often just having a caring and genuine friend to act as a sounding board (being someone who cares, listening, etc) is a huge first step. That conversation should build towards something if possible – try to encourage further action, maybe through further conversations or talking to other friends or family.

Some problems or conditions are too big for friends and family to talk through; encourage professional help. Professional help might be the best next step. That doesn’t mean your role has to end, that you’re just palming your friend off to a doctor – help them book an appointment and continue to encourage and support them outside the clinical setting. Informal conversations are an important part of healing, and you might (or might not) find that it’s actually part of the process a healthcare professional provides moving forward. This may also involve being prescribed medication, so keep in mind that seeking help is the first of many steps.

Lastly, don’t forget to give the person space to grow, if that’s what they need, but also try to act in a way that reinforces the benefits of the help they’re receiving.  Keep checking in. Understand that this is a long-term thing, and change won’t happen overnight – and continue to support them along the way.

Australian support:

Beyond blue
1300 224 636

Suicide call back
1300 659 467

13 11 14

1800 184 527

1300 789 978

Kids helpline
1800 551 800

Staff writers

ABS 2018. National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW 2020. Australia’s Health. Canberra: Department of Health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-os0fXQeoyw

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) Health Council 2017. The Fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan. Canberra: Department of Health.

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