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If you are ever in doubt, please just say something (16th April 2021)

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

In my last column I talked about some responses to my sharing that I live with bipolar disorder, which I found unhelpful.

So now I would like to turn this on its head, and share some thoughts on what responses I would find helpful.

In the past if a friend or other loved one has confided in you; I would have suggested giving them a hug. This may not be possible right now, so perhaps tell that person you are sending them a virtual hug, or that you would like to give them a hug. This not only shares a moment of warmth, empathy and connection, but gives you some time to think about what more you are going to say.

So, what should you say? In my opinion it could be anything that demonstrates that you have heard the message; understand that the person sharing that information respects and trusts you with what for them is likely to be some very preciously guarded information, and gives reassurance that you are there for them.

As one very wise person who lives with long-term depression told me: “It is simply about listening and showing that you care.”

So, something along the lines of: “Thank you for sharing that with me; is there anything I can do to support you – now or in the future?”

Be guided by that person and give them the space to talk while you listen.

"Although you may not have chosen to be part of this conversation, please remember that the person talking to you is likely to have placed a lot of trust in you"

It is worth bearing in mind that if someone has been building up the courage to share, this conversation might come at the end of a meeting when time is limited. Please do not use that as an excuse to cut the conversation off completely, but instead perhaps say: “I would really like to understand how you are feeling and what you have told me, but we both have to go to other meetings. Would it be OK with you if we planned another meeting very soon so that we can spend some more time talking about this, and what I can do to support you?”

Do take care to remember your body language; your non-verbal communication may have more of an impact than the words you use.

Although you may not have chosen to be part of this conversation, please remember that the person talking to you is likely to have placed a lot of trust in you, and the way that you react may impact on their future willingness to talk about their mental health.

I understand that this is a big responsibility, and it is natural that the conversation might stir an emotional response in you, so perhaps you might find it helpful to spend a few moments now thinking about how you might respond if someone comes to you later today, next week or any point in the future and confides that they are experiencing mental ill health.

I understand that it might be difficult, but please try to place the focus of the conversation on them. Understand what it might have taken for them to pluck up the courage to talk to you about something they might have been guarding closely for months, if not years.

Although on reflection I understood their response, when one person told me “wow, I am going to need time; I am finding this really difficult to get my head around”, my immediate thoughts were that they were unlikely to be finding it as difficult as I was, and even if they were, at least they did not have to live with the monsters who had taken up residence in my head. I never raised the subject with that person again, and neither did they, which was sad.

You might even want to consider taking things one step further and completing a ‘mental health first aid’ course. These courses help develop your knowledge and understanding of mental ill health and develop strategies for supporting people with mental ill health in the workplace and wider community. There are a number of these available online, and now some are even free to access.

If you are the person preparing to initiate such a conversation, please understand that what you say may come as a bit of a surprise, or even a shock. If you have been working hard to hide the day-to-day impact of your mental health condition, those around you might simply have not worked it out.

You can help support a constructive conversation by taking the lead and explaining that you understand what you are saying might be unexpected and ask if it would be helpful to arrange a time to talk later.

Or you could say something along the lines of “I wanted to let you know that I am being treated for depression and have thought of some ways in which you might be able to support me. Would you have time to talk about that now or should we arrange some time later?”

As I have already mentioned, these are some approaches that I have personally found helpful, but if you are ever in doubt, please just say something. Take a moment, and say anything that helps the person sharing with you see that you are listening, and care for them, even “look, I might not say the right words, but I want you to know that I have heard what you said, please can you tell me how best to support you?”

In my next column I will be talking some more about how people reacted to me sharing my diagnosis of bipolar, and then in future weeks I will explore ways of finding out if your friend, family member or colleague really is OK.

Until next time.

*First published by Nursing Times on 16th April 2021: and reproduced here with kind permission

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