How to talk about your mental health, according to the experts

This Mental Health Awareness month, we’ve asked the experts how to discuss your mental wellbeing at work, with friends and family, and with your GP, too.

Over the past decade, the way we talk about mental health has shifted massively. Speaking about your mental health is now actively encouraged, with celebrities like Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama opening up about everything from suicidal thoughts, to re-entry anxiety, to low-grade depression.

The stigma, though not wholly gone, is slowly diminishing.

And yet, for every person who feels able to open up about their mental health, there is another who doesn’t know where to start. While you know that telling a friend, talking to your GP or letting your boss know will likely help the situation, for many, it can be far easier said than done. 

This month marks Mental Health Awareness Month, an entire month dedicated to encouraging people to open up about their mental health. The idea is that the more normal it is to chat about how we’re feeling, the less likely anyone is to suffer in silence.

“One of the key things is how do we encourage people to talk about this?” says Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change. “Whether it be with their GP, their best friend, husband, wife, or colleague.”

We’ve bought you guides to online therapyuncommon mental health conditions, and identifying trauma. Next up: how to talk about mental health. Sure, it can feel terrifying, but we’ve got the expert advice you may need to make it that little bit easier. 

How to talk about mental health

… with your GP

If your mental health isn’t great, going to your doctor is an important first step in getting the help you need —but even if we know it’s the right thing to do, the thought of trying to articulate everything you’re feeling to an overworked doctor in a five-minute appointment can be a daunting prospect.

There are things you can do to make it easier. Firstly, if you’re worried about having to rush through how you’re feeling, you can request a double appointment. “That can help take the pressure off both you and the GP,” advises Loughran. If you don’t feel your scheduled GP is the right person to talk to – perhaps you’d prefer to confide in a female doctor, you are entitled to request a different one. Some surgeries have a dedicated practitioner who specialises in mental health so it’s worth double checking.

It’s also useful to go prepared, says Loughran. “When we’re feeling nervous, our mind can go blank. If you’re worried you’ll get there and won’t know what to say write some things down. What you’re trying to do is to get across what life is feeling like. what the symptoms are and how long you’ve been feeling this way. It’s important to try and be as open and honest as you can.”

She also recommends packing the Kleenex. “When I spoke to my GP about it for the first time, I just went with tissues and started crying. That was the opener and we started from that point.”How to talk about mental health: A woman chatting to a GP about mental health

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… with your friends and family

Opening up to someone you trust about your mental health can be an incredibly powerful thing to do. “It’s like this massive weight off your shoulders when you’re able to actually say to somebody openly and honestly: ‘I’m really really struggling at the moment,’”explains Loughran.

She says to think carefully about who you confide in. “For me, that all comes down to is who do you feel you can trust with something that’s a fundamental part of who you are and what you’re experiencing? Who has demonstrated they’re open to the topic of talking about mental health and will treat what you’re telling them with respect?”

Don’t feel like you have to make it an intense sit-down conversation. It can be easier to talk when you’re side by side, rather than face to face – like when you’re stuck in traffic or taking a walk. “We did some research with young people about when they would be most likely to talk about mental health and a distraction activity, when you’re doing everyday things, is helpful both for the person speaking and also the person listening.”

Another myth is that you need to chat for hours. “Sometimes it’s sufficient to just have landed the topic, and then you can come back to it,” says Loughran. “Once you’ve opened the door a crack it’s much easier to push that open when you’re both ready to have the conversation.”

When mental health pops up in the news or in popular culture, that can also be a good opportunity to start talking. “You can say: ‘you know, I’ve been feeling a bit like that, too.’”

People who care about you will want to help – but don’t be afraid to say you don’t need advice, Loughran advises. “By saying, ‘It’s just really helpful for you to hear and to listen’, you’re guiding the the focus of the conversation.”How to talk about mental health: A woman chatting to a friend about mental health

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… at work or with your manager

Mental health is a leading cause of sickness absence and employers are increasingly getting their act together and being pro-active in how they can help tackle it. It can feel especially scary to open up about how you’re feeling at work but —if it gets to a stage where you’re really struggling or your performance is affected —it’s better that your employer knows there’s a good reason for it. Your employer has a duty of care, which means they must do all they reasonably can to support your health and wellbeing.

“The best person to talk to initially is your line manager,” says says Professor Cary Cooper, author of Wellbeing at Work and Professor of Organisational Psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School. “However, that boss has to be a person that you feel you can talk to. If your boss is not a good listener, or you know that he or she is not a very tolerant person and won’t listen to you then think about going to HR instead.”

Any conversation you have with HR is confidential by law – but if you’re speaking with your line manager instead then make it clear if you don’t want anyone else to know. It’s up to you to give as much or as little detail as you want – there’s no obligation to reveal more than you’re comfortable with. However, Dr Cooper says it can be helpful to be honest and open. “I think it’s very worthwhile telling them what’s going on in your life. Think through what would help you in the context of work,” says Cooper.

Find a good time. Don’t try and corner your boss when they’re rushing to an important meeting or up against it with a deadline. And go into the conversation with an idea of what support you need – whether that be time off for counselling appointments, more flexible hours or negotiating a day working from home. You can read more information on your rights at work on the MIND website.How to talk about mental health: A woman chatting to colleagues about mental health

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If you’re experiencing mental health problems or need urgent support, know this: there are lots of places you can go to for help.

* Samaritans (samaritans.org): provides confidential, non-judgemental emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide. You can phone, email, write a letter, or in most cases talk to someone face to face. Phone 116 123 (24 hours a day, free to call) or email: jo@samaritans.org

* SHOUT (giveusashout.org): Shout is the UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere. It’s a place to go if you’re struggling to cope and you need immediate help. Text: 85258

* Mind Infoline: (mind.org.uk): The Infoline gives confidential information on types of mental health problems, where to get help, drug treatments, alternative therapies, and advocacy. The mind works in partnership with around 140 local Minds providing local mental health services. Call 0300 123 3393 (9 am-6 pm Monday to Friday) or text 86463. Email: info@mind.org.uk