When the going gets tough, the tough may need to ask for support to help them get by. But those kinds of conversations aren’t easy. You may, for example, feel affected by the stigma against mental illness, or you may be worried that your loved ones won’t understand what you’re going through. These are valid concerns.
But there are ways to make these conversations easier and more effective. Here’s a breakdown of those practices, according to four mental health professionals:
Decide who to ask for support
In an ideal world, everyone in your life would be willing and able to provide mental health support to others. But that just isn’t the case for most people, so it’s important to be somewhat methodical in your approach.
“When you decide to discuss your mental health with someone, consider how they’ve responded to mental health topics before,” says Kailee Place, a licensed professional counselor at Shifting Tides Therapeutic Solutions, adding, “If you’d rather not push back against resistance or a lack of understanding, consider people in your world who are open to the topic of mental health and who will provide a safe space to talk about it.”
You should feel some level of comfort with the person you’re talking to about your mental health, but that person also needs to be in a position to provide the assistance you need.
For example, if you’re having trouble getting work done due to stress, a boss would be better suited to help you on a practical level than a colleague because they have the authority to do things like move back deadlines or redelegate certain tasks. But if you’re just looking to blow off some steam, you’re better off going to a close colleague than your manager. It’s this balance of need and comfort that can help you find the best options for support within your world.
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Include as much—or as little—information as you want
No one should feel pressured to share more than they are comfortable with, regardless of mental health status. If you’re not used to setting boundaries, there are certain guidelines you can use to help you have a more effective and productive discussion—within your comfort level.
“Let the relationship dictate how much is shared,” says Julieann Ipsan, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist at the Frederick Psychology Center. “If it is a formal, not very warm relationship, consider limiting information to what is vital for the [person] to know.”
There should be a balance between how much you share to allow the person to understand your needs while maintaining your comfort. So while you may feel the need to have a conversation with your boss so that you can get the proper support you need at work, you don’t have to go into detail if you aren’t comfortable with that.
“You never have to disclose your mental illness,” adds Dr. Shanna B. Tiayon, a social psychologist and owner of Wellbeing Works LLC. “In my courses, I tell people, ‘You don’t have to know what a person has to be able to support them.’ That’s really important, but it can be empowering sometimes to give it a name and speak in that language so that people know you’re fully aware and navigating your recovery.”
Even if you don’t want to put a specific name to your mental health issue or mental illness, sharing your signals of distress—like closing yourself off from others or having a shorter fuse—can be useful information to those who are close to you. That way, when they see you starting to show your signs of distress, they can both be more mindful of where it’s coming from and provide additional support to help you.
Keep the conversation focused on your needs
The language of mental health can feel overwhelming if you’ve never meaningfully talked about it before. With a little bit of effort, it becomes easier to use.
Start by looking at how you cope when things get tough. This way, you can come up with ideas for how others can support you. For example, if you feel extra stressed when you finish working for the day, and 15 minutes of alone time when you walk in the door would relieve that stress, that would be useful information to your partner. The way that you communicate this information is up to you.
“Communicate in whatever manner you are most comfortable,” says Ipsan. “Some people prefer a letter or an email to start off the topic. Sometimes it helps to tell the person why you chose them in particular to share this very personal conversation with.”
You should also look at how you phrase things during a conversation around mental health needs. Dr. Tiayon suggests using “I” statements to help you guide the conversation. So, saying things like, “I want,” “I feel,” or “I need” can help you form the discussion. It shouldn’t be about projecting or accusing, she adds.
Saying something like, “you make me feel this way,” or “you’re doing this wrong” is counterproductive and can lead to animosity. Framing the conversation around your needs, in a way that reinforces that you understand the person cares about you or is invested in your success, can help you lead the conversation and advocate for your mental health needs.
The goal is to get your needs on the table in a clear and assertive way so that you are understood and the other person can support you in a healthy way.
Useful phrases to lean on when in doubt
- Here’s what I need from you.
- Are you open to doing Z with me?
- Can we do Y instead of X?
- Here’s how you can support me.
- I may be doing X, Y, and Z more (or less)
- I’m coming to you because I know you love me.
- Could you do X to support me?
- It would really help me out if you could do X.
- When I feel X, I tend to do Y.
- X has been weighing on me lately and it’s made me feel Y.
Although asking for help in matters of mental health can be intimidating, those who do ask for support may find that the results are better than expected, especially in a time when so many people are dealing with the same issues. Everyone, after all, needs support for their mental health from time to time.
“Opening up about our mental health concerns and not labeling it as being crazy or abnormal, and removing the stigma behind it—sharing helps a lot,” says Angela Body, a mental health clinician at the Hope and Wellness Partnership. “And keeping the conversation going is important.”