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Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling, according to experts

Friends talking about their mental health at home on the sofa. (Getty Images)
Listening without judgement is one of the best ways you can help someone struggling with their mental health. (Getty Images)

Mental Health Awareness Week is here, but checking in on your loved ones is helpful all year round, of course.

With the cost of living crisis continuing to put many of us under pressure, things can feel especially overwhelming right now. But there are steps we can take to help the people around us who are struggling, whether openly or in more subtle ways.

That said, it's important to remember you're not responsible for your loved ones' personal mental health struggles – sometimes just being a good listener is all it takes to help someone feel a little more understood. While there's no concrete right or wrong way to help, if you are wanting to reach out, doing so in a sensitive way can make the world of difference.

Read more: When is Mental Health Awareness Week and what is this year's theme?

Here's the best advice from the people who deal with mental health issues and crises every day, as previously told to Yahoo Life UK.

Listen to people fully

Man listening to man
'It's not what you say but what you do.' (Getty Images)

Being a good listener might just be all it takes to make someone feel a little better in the moment.

"People underestimate how important it is to help someone feel like they’re being heard. Most of the time, when friends are offloading to you, what they really want is to be fully listened to," says Marianne Rizkallah, a leading music therapist.

"It’s not just what you say but what you do. If you say to someone you’re here to listen, then listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t judge. Try and put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Empathy is the most important thing you can offer."

And there's one very easy but effective way you can ensure they know you've really taken in what they've just told you.

"Try reflecting back what someone has said, using their words and phrases," advises Rizkallah.

"If a friend is telling you how devastated they feel about a breakup, reply using their words: 'I can really hear how devastated you feel about this.' It’s a very direct way of showing someone that you’re listening to them and that you understand."

Read more: Do you love yourself as a person? Why so many of us struggle and how to turn things around

Father and son talking on couch at home
Try using their words to show you've heard them. (Getty Images)

Ask twice if they are okay

How many times has someone answered 'fine' when you've asked them how they are, or vice versa?

"People rarely offer right away that they are struggling, so if you have an inkling it's important to, ask twice. When people say they are fine, ask again 'But how are you really?'" says Suzie Grazier, psychological wellbeing practitioner at www.thinkwisepwp.com.

But try to resist jumping in and offering too much advice. Very often, less is more.

"Instead of offering solutions, try validating statements like, 'it sounds like you're having a tough time right now'," suggests Grazier.

"Instead of looking for the right thing to say or assuming they need a certain response, ask them 'What do you need right now?' Or 'how can I help?'"

Ask open questions

It's best to avoid making anyone feel like you're accusing them of something, or trying to force something specific out of them.

"Ask open and clarifying questions. You really want to listen non-judgmentally and then help them to take the next step," says psychologist and mental health first aider Lis Cashin.

"Whether that's to talk to someone else, seek help from GP or a therapist. Or just talking it through with a trusted friend may be all that they need."

And, echoing Grazier's advice, Cashin adds: "Don't say, 'Cheer up', or 'It's not that bad', and don't interrupt or hijack the conversation to be about you or advise the other person when you don't know the full picture."

Better things to say include, "Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I know it can take a lot of courage," "That sounds really tough", "I want to make sure you get the right help and support and I'm not qualified to do that, but let me help you find someone that is."

Teenage girl supporting friend
'That sounds really tough' is a helpful thing to say. (Getty Images)

Be physically present

Quite literally 'being' there for someone can be enough.

"A lot of the things you can to do help support someone who is struggling can be non-verbal too. Simply being physically present with someone who is feeling anxious or depressed can be incredibly supportive and soothing," says Dr Zoë Watson, a London-based GP with a special interest in mental health.

"Generally, people in the depths of a mental health crisis don’t want advice, they don’t want to be told what to do, they don’t want to be told what helped this person or that person."

Instead, Watson explains, "They are experiencing emotional trauma and the brain simply isn’t responsive to – albeit often well-meaning – advice. Offering unsolicited advice may in fact lead to further feelings of depression and inadequacy, due to the fact they will often feel too tired/anxious/withdrawn to even contemplate leaving the house."

Read more: Why song is so great for your mental health, as 'singing estate agent' goes viral

Don't put pressure on yourself to solve it

While it's great to help others, it shouldn't be at the expense of your own wellbeing.

"You're unlikely to be the cause of a person's issue, and you aren't going to be the full solution either, so free yourself of that pressure," says psychotherapist Katy Georgiou, who is also the author of How to Understand and Deal with Stress: Everything You Need to Know to Manage Stress.

"Think of yourself as one person in a chain of people and things that can support the person turning to you. The part you play matters, and this is part of a wider network of support."

Explaining how to put your part into practice, Georgiou says, "When someone is struggling, it's common for them to feel guilty for asking for help, and feel under pressure to be ok. Factor this in when checking in with someone, no matter what they're going through. Rather than asking 'How are you doing?', which can be helpful up to a point, simply send them signals now and then that you're keeping them in mind."

And it's okay not to offer the world if you're not able to give it (it's unlikely you would be).

"As a general rule, don't make any promises you can't keep: eg, don't say 'I'm here for you anytime' if you're not, or 'You can talk to me about anything' if you can't," adds Georgiou. "Think about what you can offer. Is it a hug, a text, a call? Is it a visit, or a long chat? It's good to know this in advance, and communicate that to whoever you're supporting."

Worried man watching smartphone and waiting message
Sometimes just a text to check in can help. (Getty Images)

Help in small ways

A practical gesture to make your loved one's day that bit easier can also go a long way.

"Having someone who can do a quick shop or just pop round to wash the dishes will make a huge difference to someone with depression who will find these tasks daunting," says psychotherapist Gin Lalli.

"This will help them feel better in their own environment and encourage them to start doing these things for themselves. Try and be specific, rather than saying 'What can I do?' try 'Why don’t I wash up while you make us a cup of tea?' You’ll be helping them to take some action."

Look for support together

"If you don’t have the information about the best professional service to hand, agree to either look for it, or suggest you do it together," says therapist Marilyn Devonish. "Say, 'I know there are organisations out there who can help. Let’s see what we can find.'

"As an ex-Samaritans volunteer, they are always still high on my list as a brilliant listening service, and are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Read more: The most common mental health conditions - and where to get help

Man consulting with practitioner, African psychologist holding clipboard with card sitting in front of patient listens his mental health complaints. Job interview process applicant and HR manager concept
Let them find a therapist that works for them, says Louise Chunn. (Getty Images)

Let them choose their own path

While you can search together for resources or helpful organisations, finding an individual counsellor or therapist is a bit different.

"You shouldn’t say to people who are struggling, I have a great therapist, take their number," says Louise Chunn, founder of psychotherapist-finding site Welldoing.org.

"Finding a therapist is an individual process. Research shows that it is not the type of therapy or level of experience that dictates success in therapy, but the therapeutic alliance, the relationship made between client and therapist."

Chunn adds, "They should contact several, speak to them on the phone, even have first sessions with more than one, then work out who they feel comfortable with."

Of course, therapy outside the NHS can be expensive or there are long waiting lists, which is why calling up a charity can be good starting point to see what else is available.

Visit the NHS website to find information on psychological therapies services (IAPT), speak to your GP about how you are feeling, contact the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or talk to someone you trust.

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