How to talk to people about your mental health

Seeking help is often the first step towards getting and staying well, but talking about a mental health problem isn't always easy. It's normal to feel nervous about speaking about your health to a trusted friend or family member - and approaching your doctor or employer for help can seem overwhelming.

Despite this, it's always OK to seek help and support - and it's important to do so, no matter what the problem is. So how can you make it a little easier?

How to speak to family and friends

"Having a solid support system is really important, especially when someone is struggling with their mental health," says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. "Sharing how you feel with a friend or family member helps to lighten the load, and ensures that they're able to be there for you in the way that we all need when we're going through a difficult time."

However, it can be difficult to talk about our mental health with loved ones, either because we're afraid of burdening them with our problems, the fear of stigma or showing them a vulnerable side of ourselves. But suffering in silence can intensify the mental health problem and lead us to withdraw further from others.

Write things down

"It can be daunting to start the conversation, but once you have spoken about it, it becomes much easier to continue talking, as well as to ask for help," says Dr Tanushree Sarma, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

"Sometimes, writing down your feelings in the form of a narrative or a letter might be easier and can be incredibly cathartic," she adds.

You could also spend some time writing a few notes about what you want to say, or things you have been struggling with. If you find face-to-face conversations hard, you could chat by phone or even send an email.

Find a safe space

Choosing the right time and place is also important. Make sure you are somewhere you feel safe, comfortable and you (and the person you're speaking to) have plenty of time. "Organise a time when you know neither of you will be interrupted so your friend or family member can give you their full attention," Touroni says.

Be open

It's also important to be as honest and open as you can, even if you are not sure exactly what problem you are experiencing - whether it is anxiety, depression or another mental health problem. "Be clear about your experience and the impact it's having on your life and let them know how they can help you," says Counselling Directory member Fiona Wright.

"Share information with them, perhaps an article, or a book that has resonated with you that can help explain what you're experiencing."

How to discuss a mental health problem with your doctor

If you've noticed changes in the way you are thinking or feeling over the past few weeks or months that are concerning you, you should consider going to see your GP. Speaking to a doctor about a mental health problem may seem daunting, but they are there to help. In fact, 40% of GPs appointments in the UK now involve mental health, according to the charity Mind.

"Reaching out is the first step towards recovery so it should never be underplayed," Touroni says. "Many people leave it until crisis point before reaching out but the earlier you seek the appropriate care and support the better. Your GP will be used to talking about mental health so never feel embarrassed or ashamed."

It may not be face to face

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, GPs have been advised to screen all patients with a telephone or video consultation before making a decision about seeing them face to face. Mental health problems rarely involve a physical examination, so there's a good chance that your GP will want to go through all your concerns at this call. It can feel strange not to be in the same room as your GP, but you can get just as much out of it.

Do make sure if you have a phone or video consultation that you're somewhere you feel comfortable and can't be disturbed.

Ask for more time

Firstly, GP appointments are usually around ten minutes long, so you may want to ask for a longer appointment if you need more time.

If you're going into the practice, give yourself plenty of time to get to your appointment so you don't feel rushed or stressed. You might want to bring some notes with you just to make sure you don't forget anything, and you cover everything that you want. It might also help to bring a friend, partner or family member along for support (if you have a phone or video consultation, you can ask them to be with you when you take the call) - whatever's going to make things easier for you to open up.

Write down your thoughts, feelings or symptoms

"It might be useful to have a concise but clear list of symptoms, when they started, and any triggers. Sometimes, it is extremely useful to have a close relative or friend with you for collateral history," Sarma adds.

"If you've suffered a manic episode, you might not always remember the symptoms, but the people close to you may be able to give details, thereby enabling the doctor to make the correct diagnosis and provide further support."

Be honest

During your appointment, the GP will ask questions to understand how you're feeling both mentally and physically. "Try to be as honest as possible with your responses," says Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind. "You might want to have a trusted friend or family member with you or ask for them to sit in on the appointment if it's digital or over the phone."

It's OK if you can't explain exactly what the problem is or why you are experiencing it, but try to be as clear as you can about how it is affecting you.

"Use a language that works for you; use metaphors or an article someone else has written," Wright adds. "Take any information with you that might help to explain how you're feeling."

Don't be afraid to ask for more information

Depending on your symptoms, your GP might make a diagnosis, or they might refer you on to a specialist mental health team.

"A good GP should talk you through different treatments and how they work, such as talking therapies and medication," Buckley says. "Sometimes people aren't given a full range of options or outlined all potential side effects. Ask for more information if you need it, and it's OK to ask for a follow-up appointment so that you can keep track of how you're feeling."

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How to speak to your employer

It can be challenging to speak to a close friend or relative about a mental health problem, let alone a manager. But keeping an issue to yourself - either because you are worried about repercussions, or judgement, or don't know how to approach the conversation - can make the problem worse.

Know your rights

You could be concerned about confidentiality or discrimination as a consequence of talking about a mental health problem, so it is important to know your rights.

"The Equality Act 2010 gives disabled employees the right not to be discriminated against in work, and places a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for staff, so that they're not put at a disadvantage," says Buckley. "A mental health problem can meet the definition of a disability under the 'Act' if it has a substantial, adverse impact on your life and has lasted or is expected to last a year or more."

Reasonable adjustments might include a change to your hours, your role or your location, depending on what your employer agrees to.

Acas or Mind's legal line - 0300 466 6463 - can provide advice and support if you don't get anywhere with your manager or HR team. You can also reach out to them if you are being treated differently or discriminated against because of disclosing a mental health problem.

Find the right person to talk to

If your manager doesn't create the space for you to be able to talk about well-being, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue.

"Choose who you want to speak to, such as human resources, or your manager or supervisor, and establish the best way to communicate with that person," Wright says.

"Depending on your relationship with them, it may feel more manageable or appropriate to email them first. If you are apprehensive about the conversation, bring someone else with you, a mediator, friend or colleague."

Find the right place

The middle of a busy open-plan office probably isn't the right place to have a quiet, personal conversation with your boss or HR manager. If you can, book time in a private room or meet your manager somewhere where you feel comfortable.

"Schedule an appropriate time for the conversation, and make sure it's somewhere you won't be interrupted. Be direct and straightforward about your concerns, what you're experiencing at the moment and how this is impacting your work," Touroni says.

If you already have a diagnosis, it can help to have a GP letter with you.

Think about work adjustments

It can help to think about what changes can be made to enable you to do your job, while safeguarding your mental health. The decision will be up to your employer, but proposing reasonable suggestions can be really useful.

If you can easily work remotely, you might want to ask your manager if you can work from home - even if it's for one day a week. You may want to reduce your workload or ask to be moved to a different team. Write down the reasons the changes will help you and make sure your employer knows you will be able to work effectively.

The clearer you are in explaining why the adjustment will help you personally and professionally, the more likely your boss is to accept the suggestion.

"You might also want to make them aware of your ongoing treatments, which will enable you to take time off work to attend appointments," Sarma says.

Crucially, it helps to remember that many people experience a mental health problem in their lifetime and that you aren't alone. Getting help and support is essential.

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