How Can I Talk to Someone about their Mental Health?

Maybe it starts by you noticing something about one of your team members that is not quite right.  Maybe you notice they are acting or speaking differently, or not speaking at all.  Maybe you notice that they have lost their energy and focus and aren’t as outgoing as they normally are. Or maybe you notice a significant decline in the work they are doing, or that they aren’t even at work lately. Any of these could be one of many signs or symptoms that your colleague may be experiencing a mental health issue.

Because there are so many misconceptions and stigma around mental health problems, choosing to speak about these can be very difficult. So, what do you do if you notice a friend, loved one or colleague struggling? What can you do if they come to you directly about some of their difficulties?

How to Talk to Someone About Mental Health

There are useful ways that you can support them, even if it is the first time that you have spoken to them about how they are feeling.  When someone speaks up, you can be there by listening patiently to them, giving them lots of space and time to find the words to express their thoughts and experiences, and to acknowledge how they are feeling.

  • Recognize that this is a very real issue for them and take them seriously. Treat them with respect, give them your full attention, and ensure your conversation stays private.
  • Offer empathy. Believe what they are telling you and let them know that you understand and get how they feel, and let them know that it’s ok to not be ok.
  • Ask them about what they are going through and let them do the talking. Don’t lecture. Be an active listener and let them say what they need to. We can be tempted into offering opinions or trying to relate with our own life experiences, but what they really need is a non-judgmental confidant to hear them out.
  • If you approach someone that you are concerned about, understand it may be incredibly difficult for that person to come to terms with the reality of the situation. They may not want to talk to you then and there. Leave the door open for them to come to you in the future.
  • It is important to offer reassurance and help the person feel hope. Mental health conditions are real medical conditions and can be treated effectively. Be empathetic to their situation and offer help in any way you can. Encourage them to seek support.
  • Understand if they are at risk for harm. Someone going through a mental health crisis is at an increased risk of self-harm and even suicide. Given the content of the conversation and your assessment of the situation, it may be appropriate to ask them if they are considering self-harm directly. Use your own discretion and be tactful.

Conversations in the Workplace

We get it: not every manager is comfortable sitting down with an employee to talk about their mental health – and, not everyone is willing to bring up their personal struggles with their employer for fear of disappointment, weakness or job loss. In fact, a 2012 Canadian Community Healthcare survey has shown that only 10.5% of people experiencing a mental health disorder or substance dependency problem have sought out any type of professional help. There is no doubt that it is a sensitive subject that needs to be handled as such. But that doesn’t mean we have to be afraid of it. We have the responsibility to step up and start the conversation. So, if you notice an employee struggling, step up, step in and start the conversation!

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call or text 9-8-8 for 24/7 support. Additional and provincial resources are available here.