Mental Health Awareness Week: Top tips for talking about mental illness

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When it comes to mental illness, talking and listening are important. Here we suggest different ways that you can seek support, or provide it for others in need

Millions of people across the UK struggle with mental illness, and for a large number of those, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated matters.

In a recent study carried out by the charity Mind, around a third of adults and young people said that their mental health had become 'much worse' since the country first went into lockdown in March 2020.  

Nowhere has the impact of Covid-19 on mental health been felt more strongly than among public sector staff, many of whom worked through extremely stressful circumstances as coronavirus wrought havoc across the world. According to the 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index, one in five school workers experienced panic attacks in the first year of the pandemic. A 2020 study by Roehampton University found that mental illness symptoms quadrupled among NHS workers during the initial wave of Covid. And recent Government research revealed that mental illness is the largest cause of long-term sickness absence among civil servants.

holding hands mental health

Statistics like these provide a timely reminder that, while many things are returning to 'normal' following the Covid-19 outbreak, the psychological effects of the pandemic may take much longer to heal. If you're experiencing anxiety or depression, or you have a loved one or work colleague who's going through a difficult time, it's important to address it as soon as possible. To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May), we've put together some tips on how to seek support for yourself, or provide it to others, in the wake of this challenging period.    

How to seek mental health support for yourself

talking to therapist

Speak with your GP

There's a common misconception that general practitioners are only there to help with physical ailments. Not so – according to Mind, around 40% of GP appointments in the UK are to do with mental health. So, don't be afraid to schedule a slot with your doc and talk about the things that are bothering you – they'll be well versed in how to help. As Dr Elena Touroni of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic says: “Your GP will be used to talking about mental health, so never feel embarrassed or ashamed.”

Talk to your employer

If you're experiencing mental health issues, you may be apprehensive about telling your employer for fear of it being seen as a sign of weakness. But if your work has been suffering, it's better they know that there are genuine reasons for it and it's not because you've been 'slacking off'. If you feel that you need a better work-life balance, or if you're frustrated with your role, now could be the perfect time to discuss it. Highlight how changing such things could benefit the company and you might just earn a few brownie points at the same time.   

Use relevant examples

If you're struggling to convey how you're feeling, it may help to reference examples from books you've read or films you've watched. Citing a scene from the latest Marvel or Disney blockbuster might make you feel a bit silly, but it doesn't matter – if it enables your friend, relative, boss or GP to gain a clearer picture of what you're going through, then it's absolutely worth it. You might also find that it lightens the mood and helps you to open up.

Don't expect an easy fix

A chat with someone close to you could be all that it takes to make you feel better – but that's a best-case scenario and you should prepare yourself for a much longer recovery journey. It may take several sessions with your chosen helper before they truly understand what you're going through so that they can give you the support you need. Whatever you do, don't compare your recovery time with others who've had similar problems – it's not a race, and everyone's circumstances are different.     

How to provide mental health support to others

mental health hug

Check on the people you're close to

If your friend, relative or team member is experiencing anxiety or depression, they may be apprehensive about telling anyone due to the perceived stigma around mental illness. Remind them on a regular basis that they can talk to you about their feelings at any time and in total confidence. Also look out for signs that they may be suffering; for example, they may be neglecting their personal hygiene, drinking too much alcohol or avoiding social contact.    

Enable them to express their feelings

You may be eager to offer some advice, but sometimes just allowing people to share their emotions can be a real help. Invite them to a quiet space, either in person or online, where they'll feel comfortable about speaking their mind without distractions. Don't grill them, as it'll just make them feel pressured; instead, gently encourage them to open up (“Why don't you try to explain how you've been feeling?”), and give them time to articulate what they want to say.

Don't treat them differently

While your friend, relative or team member may appreciate your love and support, it won't help them to be treated like some kind of patient. Act normally whenever you're around them – invite them to social gatherings as you would anyone else, and be sure to talk to them about everyday subjects and not just their mental wellness. Just drop in occasional reminders that you're there for them if ever they need to discuss their feelings.

Don't try to do everything yourself

Though you may have the best intentions, trying to 'heal' your friend, loved one or team member all by yourself can be counterproductive for them, as well as putting pressure on you. Once they've opened up about their feelings, rather than offer advice that you're not qualified to give, suggest that they get in contact with a professional (see links at foot of page). For moral support, you could even offer to accompany them while they make the call or attend a counselling session.      

Useful contacts for mental health support

mental health charity

If you're struggling with your mental health and don't fancy sharing your feelings with a friend, relative, employer or GP – or if someone has asked you to support them but you don't feel you're able to – remember that trained professionals are always on hand to help. You may find the following links and resources useful:

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