Daisy Parker is a third year PhD student at the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health. Her research focuses on developing training to support general practitioners when they’re talking to patients with emotional problems.
I have studied psychology in one way or another for over ten years, but that still didn’t prepare me for finding out that somebody I loved was suffering from depression. That gut wrenching feeling of knowing that a person you care about is in pain, but feeling powerless to do anything about it, is a feeling I’m sure I have shared with many other people. Having that conversation is not easy for any of us – including doctors. That is why for my PhD, I am investigating ways to help GPs have better conversations with patients with mental health concerns. But you don’t have to be a doctor to have a helpful conversation about mental health. Here are a few tips, based on my research:
- Listen attentively. Turn off any distractions, put down your phone, face the person with your whole body. Encouraging noises, such as ‘mhm’, lets them know that you are listening and encourages them to talk. Don’t be afraid of silence, try to avoid filling the gaps and allow the person to be able to gather their thoughts.
- Provide reassurance, and validate their feelings and decision to open up to you. It is often difficult for people to share their mental health problems. They may be ashamed or embarrassed, or feel that they are bothering you. Phrases such as “that sounds tough for you”, “I’m here for you”, and “I’m glad you reached out” are simple but effective ways of providing reassurance and validation.
- Remind them that there is help out there. Often, people do not feel that they deserve help, or that no-one can/will help them. Gently encouraging them to speak to their GP, or seek help from a charity such as Samaritans (call 116 123 in the UK) can be the endorsement they need. The university provides a number of sources of support which can be found at http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/. You may also wish to offer to come with them to their doctor’s appointment for support.
- Don’t feel that you need to fix them. Simply being listened to, reassured, and supported is therapeutic on its own. Unless you are asked for advice, give it sparingly. A non-judgemental approach will help you to keep those channels of communication open.
- Finally, look after yourself. Listening to and supporting someone who has mental health concerns can be emotionally draining. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so make sure that you look after your own wellbeing as much as you can.