how to start the conversation about mental health

Conversations between young people and family can feel challenging, particularly when you or your young person are worried or uncomfortable talking about sensitive topics like mental health.

There is no single way to have these conversations. Different approaches work better for different people. Family and friends can feel unsure about how or when to start these conversations, and where they might go for help. No one gets these conversations perfectly right, making the effort to learn more is a great start. 

 

How can family and friends help?

Family and friends play a vital role in identifying and supporting a young person who is experiencing the impacts of mental ill-health.

Notice, enquire and let your young person know that you care about them no matter what they are going through. This is important and helps encourage young people to seek support early to manage the impacts of mental ill-health. 

Evidence has shown that having supportive loved ones involved in mental health care improves and creates longer lasting, positive outcomes for young people.

How do I know if I need to have a conversation about mental ill-health?

Family members or friends can often tell when something is not quite right – you may notice the way your young person expresses themselves is different, or other changes in their behaviour. If you notice changes, it’s a good time to have a conversation about what might be happening for them.

For more information about mental health and the signs that someone might be experiencing mental ill-health, have a look at ‘an overview of mental health for family and friends’.

 

Managing yourself

When starting a conversation about mental health it is important to first reflect on how you are feeling. If you are worried or upset, this could come across to your young person. Young people are often hyperaware of how family and friends might respond to their experiences and can worry about burdening those around them.

People feel and respond differently when having conversations about mental health. Some will want to avoid the conversation while others may go into ‘fix it’ mode; some will not understand how or why others may be experiencing these thoughts or feelings.  

To be supportive, it is important to stay calm, listen and validate your young person’s experiences so they feel safe and supported.

 

Setting the scene

A good relationship with your young person is a great start to being able to talk about mental health. Spend time doing things together and take an interest in your young person’s activities outside of talking about sensitive topics. This can increase the likelihood of them talking openly about mental health. For more information check out our ‘building a healthy relationship with your young person factsheet’.

Thinking about the where, when and how you approach the conversation can positively influence the outcome.

Before starting a conversation:

  • make sure you are feeling calm and open to listening.
  • be aware of your nonverbal communication like body language and tone of voice. These things can be just as important as what you say.
  • think about where. Young people often prefer not to be eye to eye. Perhaps go for a drive or a walk
  • take their feelings seriously. Listen carefully, reflect back and don’t judge (it can be more useful at times to say nothing than to propose answers or solutions).
  • take a ‘you and me vs the problem’ approach. This lets them know you will figure it out together.

 

Starting the conversation

There is no perfect way to start a conversation about mental health with a young person. Sometimes it can be helpful to begin with general and open questions such as:

  • how is [e.g. school/sport] going?
  • how are you getting on with [e.g. your friends/your siblings]?
  • how are you feeling about [e.g. studying/exams]?

When focusing on more specific thoughts and feelings, ‘I’ statements are important such as:

  • I’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot on your mind lately. I’m happy to talk or listen and see if I can help
  • I feel like you [haven’t been yourself lately/have been up and down] - how are things?
  • you seem [anxious/sad] - what is happening for you? Just letting you know that I care, and we can work it out together
  • it’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me. You could talk to [trusted/known adult]. I want you to know that I love you and am concerned.

How you talk with your young person will depend on their age and understanding. The language you use should feel natural. If your young person opens up about their mental health, reassure them early on that you’re glad and relieved that they’re talking to you.

Worrying that a young person might be feeling unsafe due to mental illness can feel overwhelming and scary. If you are concerned it is important that you talk to them directly.

Here are some tips to start this conversation:

  • let them know that you are concerned about their safety
  • talk openly and honestly
  • acknowledge the difficulty of opening up about thoughts or feelings and reassure them it can help
  • reassure them that you will be there for them and ask what they need from you (they might not know what they need)
  • if you are worried about suicide, ask direct questions for example, ‘Have you ever thought about death?’ or ‘Have you ever thought about ending your life?’ (If you are not sure how you might feel hearing ‘yes’ to this question, seek professional support to help you manage the conversation)
  • offer to work together to find information and an appropriate service, such as headspace, and offer to attend the service with them if they want. 

Some young people might deny there is anything wrong and/or refuse help. This can feel overwhelming for family or friends who are unsure what they can do. 

It’s OK to raise your concerns again and again. Opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can take some time so it’s important to be persistent. Sometimes support is continuing to let a young person know you are there until they are ready to access care.

Here are some ideas on how to access support:

  • suggest other people the young person could talk to like a trusted adult, GP or online/telephone service like eheadspace
  • access your own support. Clinicians can work with family members to build confidence and resources to support your young person at home
  • access support as a family. Family therapy can sometimes feel less confronting for a young person and can reduce feelings that they are ‘the problem’
  • attend a group parenting education program such as Tuning into Teens. 

Self-care

Caring for a loved one who is experiencing a hard time can impact your health and wellbeing. When you look after yourself, you have greater patience and can offer a more considered approach to helping your young person. One of the most effective ways to support a healthy headspace in young people is to model healthy behaviours yourself.

 

What services are available?

For more information and resources for family and friends, or to join a group chat with other parents, visit eheadspace online or call 1800 650 890. You can also search for your nearest headspace centre online.

Other helpful services

 

 

 

 

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
8 August, 2020

Get professional support