How to Talk About Mental Health, From Someone Who’s Lived Through It

How to Talk About Mental Health, From Someone Who’s Lived Through It
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In Australia, we are struggling with our mental health more than ever before. The impact of COVID-19, lockdown restrictions and the many knock-on effects of the pandemic have certainly had a hand in this. And a major part of the mental health crisis we are facing is that we, as a society, have a problem engaging in open and honest conversations about mental health and wellbeing.

I have lived with depression since my late teens, and have recently been involved in hosting regular podcast conversations with mental health experts, advocates and people living with a range of mental health conditions.

This started with Mental Wellth, a podcast miniseries exploring our Australian mental health system, in which I interviewed 30 experts and people with lived experience in this space. After that, I continued having these mental health conversations as part of the Humans of Purpose podcast.

Throughout the course of my podcast work, I have learned how to have these conversations more effectively – not only by listening to my guests but also by openly talking about my mental health with friends, colleagues and employers.

Here are three things I have learned about how to have better conversations about mental health:

Go first, be vulnerable and talk candidly about your own experiences

How do you create a space so others feel comfortable to be vulnerable and share?

A key thing you can do is kick things off by sharing your own mental health vulnerabilities or even experiences that have pushed you to the brink of your coping capacity. This tends to diffuse any tension and signal to your conversation partner that they can trust you and feel safe sharing their story and experiences with you. 

When sharing your experiences, be honest and open, and even invite questions if you feel comfortable doing so. You don’t have to share your whole story or all your hardest experiences, but decide what you are willing to discuss and how you feel best telling the story.

Your job is to listen

Andrew Leigh MP is one of my favourite people. He is a polyglot who is a Federal MP, an accomplished author and a great podcaster, as well as a dad to many kids. A few years ago, I was lucky he answered my request to interview him for Humans of Purpose. One of the questions I asked him was how he decides how much to talk versus listen.

He responded by citing one of the Stoic forefathers Epictetus, who in roughly 60AD said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I have since followed this advice in all areas of my work and life, and have found it has led to far richer conversations and engagements. 

When talking to people about mental health, make sure you are doing most of the listening. Never talk over your conversation partner and only share when they have finished their thought. Even then, consider whether what you are about to say will add value, depth and momentum to the continuation of the conversation before speaking. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about people’s emotional state or wellbeing

Over time, I’ve learned that a far more interesting question than “What did you do?” is “How did it make you feel at the time?” or “What was that like for you?”

It’s very easy to talk to people about facts, but emotions are a different story. (This assumes, of course, that they feel safe talking about their emotional state. Please never pressure someone to speak about topics they’re not comfortable with.)

If you want to understand someone’s mental health journey, you’ll need to adopt an emotionally inquisitive approach and put aside any fears of rejection. When someone describes a difficult period in their life, be brave and ask how they managed to cope with the stress. Ask who they spoke with to help them process these challenges. Ask what they experienced and if they felt sad, anxious or depressed. If they did, what helped them to cope with these mental health challenges?

As a man, I believe men inherently struggle to talk about our emotions and the emotions of others. This makes mental health a really hard topic for us. I sometimes marvel at my wife’s emotionally attuned conversations with her friends and family. But with practice and commitment, you can learn to be more emotionally sensitive and inquisitive, which will give you the gift of far better conversations and a much closer connection with your conversation partners.

Having conversations about mental health can be hard. But the range of tactics outlined above can make it far easier. You may also find the following Humans of Purpose and Mental Wellth podcast episodes helpful. 

Mike Davis is a Senior Strategic Advisor at Spark Strategy, Chief Podcaster at Humans of Purpose and a Board Director at not for profits SIMNA Ltd and L2R Dance.

If you or someone you love is in need of support, services like Beyond Blue and Lifeline (13 11 14) are available 24/7. If you’re in an emergency, please call 000. 

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