We know mental health is important to talk about, but it can be tricky to know what to say—or not say.
You want to bring awareness to a mental health issue that a family member is struggling with, but what if you misrepresent it? You think a friend might be dealing with anxiety, but how do you ask without potentially offending them? And what about your own mental health? Ironically, knowing what to say to yourself can sometimes be hardest.
The truth: It’s okay not to know exactly what to say. It’s more important to keep learning and continue the conversation. With that in mind, here are four small pivots you can make in conversations to better support others—and yourself.
1. When you check in with someone.
Instead of saying: “I haven’t heard from you.”
Say: “I’m thinking of you.”
Sometimes people you regularly hear from drop off or stop connecting with you. Especially in light of the past few years, it’s important to check in with loved ones—even when they don’t appear to be struggling.
But do so in a way that doesn’t imply shame (“You don’t reach out anymore”) or additional burden (“Why aren’t you responding to me?”). For example, a message that says, “No pressure to respond, just want to let you know I’m thinking of you,” can help someone feel supported without calling them out for being distant or requiring them to follow up.
If you’re worried your efforts will be rejected or ill-received, know that this is not typically the case. According to a new study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” people tend to underestimate how much their friends like hearing from them. A simple “thinking of you” text can really do wonders.
2. When someone confides in you.
Instead of saying: “You should …”
Say: “What would help you feel supported?”
If a loved one shares a personal challenge with you, resist the urge to make suggestions about what you think they need. And also don’t make suggestions based on what you would need in their situation. Oftentimes, people already know what they need. They might just have trouble asking for it.
Instead, invite them to communicate their needs. This creates space for them to tell you and reassures them that you want to help.
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3. When you refer to a mental health issue.
Instead of saying: “My bipolar friend,” or labeling the person …
Say: “They have (or live with) … ”
The way we speak about mental health both shapes and reflects our views of it. When we define people by their mental health conditions, it comes across as if we see someone’s whole identity through the lens of their condition. For example, saying “They’re bipolar” or “My OCD friend” is a form of labeling that person as their condition.
When we shift our language—“they live with bipolar” or “my friend who has OCD”—we reinforce a person’s identity as unique and separate from their condition. We are recognizing that their condition is a part of their story, but not the whole story.
4. When you have a difficult mental health day.
Instead of saying: “I haven’t done enough.”
Say: “I am proud of myself for doing … ”
On days when we struggle with our mental health, it’s easy to get hung up on everything we aren’t doing. “Why am I sitting here? I should be going to the gym,” you might think. Or “Why am I wasting so much time doing x when I should be doing y?”
Comparing your productivity, whether to others or your past self, can pile on shame and criticism that only serve to worsen your mental health. And sure, you might have been able to check off 20 things from your list yesterday, but that doesn’t mean you need to do that today.
Instead, redefine your expectations to be more realistic and applicable to where you’re at right now. For example, maybe you didn’t go for a run or get ahead on that work project. But you did manage to take a shower and text your friends that you weren’t feeling up to grabbing dinner tonight rather than just not showing up.
These wins might look different from yesterday’s, but they are wins nevertheless. Acknowledging them is not only being self-compassionate, but it also will help motivate you to keep trying and do your best—whatever your best looks like today.
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Note: If someone you care about is in clear distress, encourage them to reach out for help from a trusted mental health professional or, if available, an Employee Assistance Program representative.