Data released by the ABS suggest that there has never been a better time to either learn or refresh your mental health first aid conversation skills. The release of the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2021 ) indicates that 3.4 million Australians aged 16-85 years (17.5%) sought help from a health professional for their mental health within the period of 2020-21. Of the 3.4 million people who saw a health professional for their mental health, 57.4% had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime and were showing signs of that disorder in the 12 months prior to the survey.
With a significant number of people experiencing anxiety, affective mood and/or substance disorders, creating a supportive environment to have a mental health first aid conversation is more important than ever.
When the opportunity to help someone arises, it can be tempting to jump straight into a conversation. The desire to alleviate a person’s stress can make it feel as though time is of the essence. However, taking time to prepare your approach to the person and the mental health conversation is time well spent.
Here are some tips for making space and creating time for thoughtful connection
The you-centred conversation
Many people think that one of the best ways to initiate a conversation about stress or mental health is to try and make it relatable. Many may talk about their experience of what works for them, rather than focusing on the person seeking help. Creating the space for a person to share how they think, feel and operate is the key to any successful mental health conversation. In doing that, you set yourself up to actively listen, while also looking for the opportunity to remind the person of their own strengths.
Most people may share how they have personally approached situations in the past as a guide to framing the person’s current problem. Or they may share the options and solutions they’ve considered but not yet acted on. Listening and reiterating the words and ideas back to someone may help them gain the courage needed to try the options they’ve considered. From here, an action plan may begin to form.
By listening to a person’s story, we validate a person’s expertise and ability to find a way forward on their own terms. Allowing them to share in a non-judgemental way means they have a better chance of choosing next steps with confidence. In turn, increasing the chance of action through providing autonomy and self-agency at a time that matters most.
Tripping over language
When someone is seeking help, how we speak to them and what we say can be quite impactful. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid the mental health conversation entirely. It simply means we should carefully consider the content and the timing of that conversation.
When discussing someone’s mental health or experiences that may be creating distress, remember to avoid terms and phrases that may directly or indirectly shame, minimise or guilt a person.
For example, words such as crazy, schizo and terms like ‘you’re so OCD’ or ‘Debbie Downer’ place stigma on mental health and the experience of mental health generally.
Remember, the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. Keep a distinction between the two.
Minimising the experience
No amount of telling someone to ‘get over it’ has ever made a person emotionally or mentally buoyant. If anything, minimising someone’s experience of their very real emotions can make them feel even less capable.
Instead, recognise that how a person feels is unique to that person. It is a complex, individual experience that informs reactions and responses, one that takes into account all kinds of influences such as biology, life experience, childhood, culture, outlook, resilience and more.
Sit with any discomfort you may be experiencing and challenge why you need to edit, perfect, or minimise the experience of others. Try and explore the reasons why listening to someone else’s view may create problems for you as the listener with awareness of your own reactions and responses in mind.
Trying to fix instead of help
Sometimes, we confuse providing help with needing to fix a situation. Telling a person what to do, how to do it and what is right for them may make you feel powerful and useful. But to the other person, it can feel more like judgement than support.
The 3 telltale signs:
- Are you are tempted to start telling someone what they should do?
- Are you ignoring what they would like to do in favour of what you think is the best way forward?
- Are you insisting your way is the best route through someone else’s crisis or situation?
If you answered ‘yes’, you may find yourself in ‘fixer’ mode, which means it might be time to take a step back. Apologise if need be. Explain that your want to help got away from you. Start the process again by asking open-ended questions that re-invites the person to share their self-directed plan of action.
Assuming you’re the only person who can help
To help another person is a wonderful thing. But it doesn’t mean we are always the help someone needs. Sometimes, our values aren’t aligned enough for the help we offer to be useful. Other times, a difference in personality may get in the way.
Understanding when to step away and refer someone for help elsewhere is an act of truly putting the person first.
There will be times through no fault of your own (or the person in front of you) where what is required is not what you can deliver. That doesn’t mean you are not valuable to the next person.
The focus should always be on providing the person in front of you with the best possible support for their specific requirements. Even if that means handing the reins to someone else.
References and Sources
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