Holding a mental health conversation is a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. At first, you may need extra training to give you the skills you need. You may wobble just a little at your first approach. Over time, confidence and experience can build. But even with training and increased confidence and experience, things may not always go quite to plan.
Accepting that this as part of the process can go a long way to continuing your training in a positive direction.
Put simply, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. This also applies to having a mental health first aid conversation. Often your first attempt at a mental health first aid conversation may be unsuccessful but don’t be afraid to try again – with another person – or even with the same person at a later date.
Even when you apply best practice principles and models, the person on the receiving end of a mental health first aid conversation may not be ready or willing to talk or engage. But any initial resistance isn’t necessarily a sign that a person will never be ready to talk, or a reflection on the skills of the person offering help.
Learn the art of reframing a mental health conversation that hasn’t gone to plan as a step toward a positive change in the future.
Consider the impact of the approach
You might approach someone with an invitation to talk, but still have the mental health conversation falter. Receptiveness to a mental health conversation is determined by many factors, including prior experience with discussing mental health, a person’s sense of safety, their mood, the day they have had, sensitivities to vulnerability, concerns about the environment, gender and cultural influences, and more. Each factor, alone or in combination with other factors, influences how a conversation may land.
That doesn’t mean that the attempt to talk wasn’t beneficial, nor should these factors deter you from initiating a mental health first aid conversation.
Sometimes, the process of opening up may include a few stumbles. It may even include a couple of steps backwards, but that doesn’t mean an attempt to offer support failed or wasn’t worthwhile. Completion, action plans, and a positive reception might be absent on one day, only to spark powerful change on another. View the conversation as an invitation to open the door to potential for change in the future.
The more normalised the mental health conversation becomes, the more the internal barriers soften, and the idea of sharing takes hold. Think of an approach as a way of loosening an emotional jar, one that might open over time with smaller steps – or as a way of allowing a help seeker to see another opportunity as it presents itself.
Regardless, every invitation to discuss mental health signifies genuine care for another person. That act of care can remind a person they are not alone and that may help them overcome reticence and reluctance in the future, or help lessen the impact of social isolation while encouraging them to keep going.
Adopting a proactive approach
If the approach made with a mental health conversation hasn’t gone to plan, applying conversational skills can help create a solid foundation for both the next conversation.
Three conversational skills that can help are:
Even when a person is rejecting an invitation to hold a mental health conversation, turning to active listening can help. Listening well and with intent, and asking questions that show you genuinely care, may help validate the process. Plus, their feedback on your approach may give vital information that aids a later conversation. Creating a safe, non-judgemental impression helps frame both you and the mental health conversation process as a welcoming and supportive space when a person needs it the most.
Engaging with a mental health conversation can be tough, especially if someone is experiencing heightened emotions, or, conversely, shutting down. In these moments, grounding can help. Grounding can reduce the intensity and dissipate the feelings that make focusing and communicating difficult. Helping a person to stay present, away from rumination, and to refocus on the everyday surroundings can provide a sense of safety and calmness. This can be achieved through a range of grounding techniques, from breathing and sensory activities to cognitive awareness exercises.The sensation of grounding may also provide a welcome relief from heightened emotions or open a door to talk once they are ready.
Focus on responding
While it may be difficult to cope with the rejection of a mental health conversation, it’s important not to react or take things personally. Even if the reaction is strong, it’s important to remember the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. Remain objective and focus on the barriers to talking openly.
Part of creating the conditions needed for safe disclosure is ensuring any rejection of a mental health conversation is not met with anger, guilt, personal affront, or humiliation by the help giver. You shouldn’t accept rude or poor behaviour, but don’t retaliate as it might escalate the situation. If needed, take a step back, focus on the well-being of both parties, and make a graceful retreat.
Respect that a person comes to self-awareness, self-care, and tending to their mental health at their own pace. The more done to create a safe space that is non-judgemental with boundaries in place, the more likely a person will revisit the potential of a successful mental health conversation.
Up your self-care
Self-care is a vital part of delivering any mental health conversation, regardless of the outcome. It’s especially useful when things haven’t gone quite to plan.
Self-care tips for a challenging mental health conversation include:
- Taking a moment in private to recoup energy
- Reflecting on the conversation in a self-compassionate, learning-centred way
- Writing out your feelings in your phone or journal
- Listening to a favourite, uplifting song
- Reframing the conversation as a vital first step to reaching someone as opposed to a completed process
- Challenging any feelings of failure or self-doubt by reminding yourself of the courage it takes to offer help in the first