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How to talk to someone who's struggling with their mental health

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People who are struggling with their mental health need to hear their feelings are valid, not to “get over it”.

“Let’s talk. Tell me two or three things that have been going right recently … What about two or three things that haven’t been going quite so well? Uh-huh. That sounds a bit rough. How do you feel about it?

“Seems like there’s a fair bit going on, then. It sounds like you are angry or frustrated that decisions are being made without you – is that right? So you think it doesn’t make sense that you’re not being involved? Considering that you’ve been in previous situations where you didn’t have a say, I think it’s understandable that you feel resentful.

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“Mind you, refusing to tell people what you’re feeling, and why, doesn’t help them understand why you’re so upset. What do you need from them, or others around you, to make that happen?

“It might not be easy, but take a little time to think about what we’ve talked about. I can see that you’re trying hard, and I think you’re going to start feeling better about this.”

Yes, it’s scripted, but it does illustrate a few things that can be quite important.

I was at Parliament recently for a student-led march to ask for better resourcing for students’ and young people’s mental health. Three young people gave extremely personal and moving accounts of their, and other’s, struggles. Victoria University of Wellington Students Association president Marlon Drake finished things off with an equally passionate call for change. Among the changes he called for was an end to this “bullshit culture of ‘get over it’,” that, he explained, feels almost pervasive among men in our country.

Marlon Drake.

“Get over it” or “toughen up” are the opposite of “that sounds a bit rough” and “it’s understandable that you feel like that right now”. The first two responses are dismissive, they diminish one’s experience, but the latter two are intended to be validating, which is not the same as endorsing the behaviour.

The first time I really thought about validation was watching people go through dialectical behavioural therapy training (DBT). This was first developed for working with people who experience unusually high levels of emotional distress and who often deal with it in self-destructive ways. Although the subjects were those meeting diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder, DBT has become a little bit like how-to-live-your-life advice to me.

Drake set a challenge to be kind to one another and to ask those awkward questions such as, “How are you really?” DBT teaches that, when you do it, you should mean it – be empathic, look the other person in the eye, show them that you’re listening by nodding and with uh-huhs. Make sure you understand by checking that you’ve got the right end of the stick.

If it sounds like they’re having a rough time, acknowledge and validate that. Ask them if there’s anything they want some help with – I know that my first instinct is to switch into problem-solving mode, but sometimes, just being heard is enough.

Yes, it may feel awkward, and it may be the same for the other person, too. That’s understandable.

Where to get help with mental health

Need to talk?: free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Youthline: 0800 376 633  or email talk@youthline.co.nz

Healthline: 0800 611 116

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.