Starting an open and supportive conversation is a great first step for getting Veterans the care and support they deserve.
It can be hard to start a conversation with someone about their mental health. How do you bring up the topic? What do you say? How do you move forward if the person is reluctant to talk or get help?
Whether you’re a spouse, partner, family member, a close friend or concerned colleague, you can make a difference in the life of someone who is struggling with their mental health. Check out the tips and resources below to figure out how to start a conversation about mental health and get someone the support they deserve.
Tips for Starting a Conversation About Mental Health
- Don’t doubt yourself. You don’t have to be an expert in mental health or have the perfect words to say to someone who is struggling. We start conversations every day on topics we’re not expert in. You’re just trying to connect with another human being who seems to be having difficulty. Often just reaching out to let someone know you care is a great first step.
- Educate yourself about mental health conditions affecting Veterans. Coming from a place of understanding can be helpful before starting a conversation. Learning about conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other conditions impacting Veterans may make it easier to understand what someone is experiencing.
- Recognize the common symptoms of mental health conditions. It may help to know what symptoms to look out for when you’re talking to someone about their mental health. Has their typical mood or outlook changed? Do they seem more anxious or depressed than usual? Is this person having difficulty taking care of themselves or their responsibilities? Are they experiencing nightmares or insomnia? Do you notice any uncharacteristic or self-destructive behaviors? Is this person isolating themselves from people and activities they used to enjoy? The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health page enables you to search by topic to learn more about the symptoms associated with common mental health conditions such as anxiety, PTSD, depression and more.
- Normalize conversations about mental health. Many people suffer silently because they think it’s not OK to talk about their mental health issues. They may feel like it’s a burden to discuss their problems with others or may be scared to open up and expose themselves to another person’s judgment. Knowing this, the more open and compassionate you are about topics related to mental health, the easier it will be for someone to share what’s going on, and feel empowered to seek the care they need.
- Be a good listener. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It can be hard not to interrupt or insert your opinion. It can be difficult not to try to move things along by saying “suck it up” or “move on.” It can be hard not to give advice (even when we aren’t asked for it). Keep your goal in mind: You’re trying to open a conversation. Here are some ways to try to be a good listener:
- Find a comfortable, distraction-free setting. This doesn’t mean it has to feel like a formal event, but to let someone know you care, give them your full attention. Find a time when you won’t be distracted by calls or texts and figure out what feels comfortable. Maybe having a conversation while taking a walk or a drive would make it feel more relaxed.
- Begin with a question. Instead of launching into a rundown of everything you think, try getting them to open up first. You could start with questions like “Are you OK?” or “I’ve noticed you seem quieter than usual. Is there something you want to talk about?” or “What’s on your mind?”
- Try not to make comparisons. It’s good to make connections with people if you’ve gone through something similar but be sure not to compare the two situations. You don’t want the person to feel belittled. Saying things like “Well, that’s nothing compared to the divorce I went through” may prevent someone from sharing more.
- Listen without judgment. Being heard by someone who cares and wants to support you can go a long way. Don’t criticize how this person is handling things. Instead, listen openly and avoid making any judgments or negative comments.
- Be direct. Sometimes it feels awkward to bring up mental health concerns, so we avoid the conversations altogether or may accept “I’m OK” as an answer even if we don’t think it’s true. Instead, be straightforward and ask the tough questions. In the article Prevent Suicide One Conversation at a Time, Blake Chaffee, Ph.D., Vice President of Integrated Healthcare Services for TriWest Healthcare Alliance (TriWest), shares that it’s important to have straightforward conversations about suicide and to ask direct questions. Questions may look like this: “Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself?” “What have you thought about doing?” “Do you have a plan?” Contrary to what people may think, these direct questions do not encourage people to act on their feelings; instead, they let you know if you need to get someone immediate attention.
- Remind them that help is available and mental health conditions are treatable. When you’re struggling with mental health issues, it can be easy to assume that something is wrong with you or that you can’t be helped, but research shows that mental health conditions are more common than we think and that treatment is available and effective. If the person is worried about getting treatment, see what you can do to help. Find out what they perceive to be the obstacles or barriers preventing them from seeking help. Offer to drive them to their appointments or to write down some of the things they’ve told you so they’re ready to talk to someone else.
- Express concern and support. At the end of the day, remind this person that you care about them and want them to get the help they deserve. You may not see any results from one conversation, but letting them know you care and are here to support them is important no matter what.
- Encourage them to seek care. If your loved one is reluctant to seek care, it may be helpful to share what treatment options and support services are available. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all program. You can join a peer group and talk to other Veterans who may understand what you’re going through. You can get started with one-on-one counseling or do family sessions. You can try telemedicine from the comfort of your home. You can use mobile apps to help you manage your symptoms. There are many different options, so emphasize that they can find what works best for them.
- Take care of yourself. Being close to someone who is struggling or dealing with a mental health condition can be stressful and emotionally draining. Find ways to reduce your stress through activities you enjoy. Consider joining a support group or seeking mental health care for yourself if you need additional support.
- Seek help from the experts. Sometimes the support you can offer isn’t enough. If a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, don’t wait to get help. Anyone can dial 988 and press 1 to reach the Military Crisis Line. You can also text 838255 or chat with someone online. The crisis line is free and available 24/7. You can also check out the resources below for more support.
- VA’s Coaching Into Care Program allows families and friends of Veterans to call and talk to a licensed psychologist or social worker who will assess their concerns, provide appropriate referrals and resources, and offer guidance for starting conversations with the Veteran in their life about seeking treatment for mental health care or substance use concerns. A short video on their site shows you how this free service works.
- VA’s REACH website offers comprehensive information and resources to help those who are suffering. Learn more about how you can help prevent suicide and reach out to those in need.
- TriWest offers additional suicide prevention resources on its site. Take the time. Make the time. Be there.®
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has additional tips for starting difficult conversations about mental health.
You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t need to find the perfect words. Starting an open and supportive conversation is a great first step for getting Veterans the care and support they deserve.