How to start the conversation
If you’re worried about someone but don’t know where to start, simply letting them know you care can make a difference. By simply being there for someone, they can feel less alone and more supported to open up and talk about how they are really feeling.
Having a conversation with someone you are worried about can be scary. There is no perfect way to start a conversation but asking open ended questions that require a response is a good way to start.
Some examples of open ended questions are:
- How are you going? What’s been happening in your life lately?
- You don’t seem quite yourself lately, is something bothering you?
- You seem upset or worried, what’s going on? Can I help with something?
- I notice you’re not going out much lately, anything going on?
Be prepared that there may be push-back where they may not be ready to talk. If this happens:
- Try not to criticise them as it can take some people a while to be willing to open-up and chat.
- Tell them that you’re still worried and you care about them.
- Offer to support them when they feel ready – words such as, ‘call me if you ever want to chat’.
- Suggest that they could chat to someone else they trust, talk to their GP or contact a support line.
- Continue to stay in touch and just be there for if, or when, they’re ready to open-up and talk.1
RUOK provides useful information on starting the conversation.
There are a number of resources and websites that provide tips on starting the conversation. It is important to keep things simple and allow space to talk and listen when the time is right.
The RUOK? Day team, in conjunction with Lifeline, have developed these Five Top Tips2 that assist you to connect with other people and to have a conversation that asks RUOK?
Tip 1. Be receptive
- Take the lead, show initiative and ask: "You don’t seem quite yourself lately, what’s bothering you?"
- Put the invitation out there: "I've got time to talk"
- Maintain eye contact (if it feels comfortable for you) and sit in a relaxed position - positive body language will help them feel more comfortable.
- Often just spending time with the person lets them know you care and can help you understand what they're going through.
Tip 2. Use ice breakers to initiate a conversation
Use open-ended questions such as "So tell me about...?", which require more than a "yes" or "no" answer.
You may also like to use the following questions to start a conversation:
- "You know, I've noticed that you've seemed really down/worried/stressed for a long time now. Is there anyone you've been able to talk to about it?"
- "Lots of people go through this sort of thing. Getting help will make it easier."
- "I hate to see you struggling on your own. There are people that can help. Have you thought of visiting your doctor?"
Tip 3. Practice your listening skills
- Listen to what a person is saying, be open minded and non-judgemental - sometimes, when someone wants to talk, they're not always seeking advice, but they just need to talk about their concerns.
- Be patient - let the person take their time.
- Avoid telling someone what to do: it is important to listen and try to help the other person work out what is best for them.
Tip 4. Be encouraging
- Encourage physical health. Maintaining regular exercise, a nutritious diet and getting regular sleep helps to cope in tough times.
- Encourage the person to seek professional help from their family doctor, a support service or counsellor, or a mental health worker.
- Encourage self-care. Sometimes people need to be encouraged to do more to look after their own needs during a difficult time.
Tip 5. Be helpful
What not to do when trying to help someone. It is unhelpful to:
- Pressure them to "snap out of it", "get their act together" or "cheer up."
- Stay away or avoid them.
- Tell them they just need to stay busy or get out more.
- Suggest alcohol or other drugs.
- Assume the problem will just go away.
Check out the RUOK? Day website to find a great video about asking someone if they are OK. In the video, Lindy Macgregor explains the signs that show someone you know may not be coping, and talks about 'suicide first aid'. This handy video is approx.. 8 mins in duration. (ReachOut.com).3
When someone you care about is struggling and going through a tough time, it can be hard to know how to support them. Despite your best intentions, there are some comments that may not be helpful in the situation and are best left unsaid.
Don’t make dismissive or unhelpful comments
If someone is talking about their experiences and emotions, there are no wrongs. Making dismissive or unhelpful comments like “you’re over-reacting”, “it’s not as bad as you think”, “snap out of it”, “cheer up”, “forget about it”, “pull yourself together”, or “I’m sure it will pass” can make a person feel worse and that their concerns are not important.
Hold back from offering advice or personal experience
Try to hold back from offering too much advice or your own personal experiences. You can’t really hear and understand their experience or issues if you’re trying to think of ways to make it better, or trying to change their mind. The first step is to listen. Saying “I know how you feel” when you actually don’t know invalidates their experience.
Avoid blaming them, making fun of the issue or stigmatising mental health issues
Sometimes we can feel uncomfortable when hearing that someone we care about is struggling but blaming them, avoiding them, making fun of their mental health issues, thinking and verbalising that mental health issues are a sign of personal weakness or failing; using words that stigmatise, like ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’; defining them by their mental health issue; or pointing out that others are worse off are not helpful and can result in the person feeling misunderstood and more isolated than ever.
Instead, acknowledge their struggle and how hard life is for them
It’s important they feel heard so the following examples of what to say can be helpful:
“Can you tell me more about what’s going on for you?”
“If you want to tell me more, I’m here to listen.”
"It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot at the moment.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that you’re feeling like this right now.”
R U OK? [Internet]. Sydney (Australia): R U OK? Limited; How to ask [cited 2017 Oct 27]. Available from: https://www.ruok.org.au/how-to-ask
REACHOUT.com [Internet]. New South Wales (Australia): ReachOut Australia; c2017. Starting a conversation about mental health with young people [cited 2017 Nov 17]. Available from: https://schools.au.reachout.com/articles/starting-a-conversation-about-youth-mental-health
Healthdirect [Internet]. Australia: Australian Gopvernment Department of Health; n.d. What not to say to someone with a mental health issue [updated 2016, Dec; cited 2017 Oct 27]. Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/what-not-to-say-mental-health
YourMentalHealth.ie [Internet]. Ireland: Health Service Executive, the National Office for Suicide Prevention and partners; c2017. What is not helpful to say to someone [cited 2017 Oct 26]. Available from: http://www.yourmentalhealth.ie/mind-yourself/concerned/worried-about-someone/not-helpful/