How to have a conversation with a mate about mental health

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Mental health is something all people should be aware of, but Aussie men in particular can benefit by paying a bit more attention to their mental health, and the mental health of their mates.

Every day in Australia, men account for 7 out of 9 suicides on average. When the Australian Bureau of Statistics, surveyed Australians in 2014-15, around 1.5 million Australian men reported that they had a mental or behavioural condition. That’s just over 1 in 6 men in a single year, and only counts the men who reported it themselves.

Looking out for your mates and being there for them if they need it might help to prevent them from becoming another statistic. If you’re keen to start a conversation about mental health with a mate, we’ve got some tips to help you get started. Whether it’s with a friend, family member or colleague, opening up about mental health can help people feel supported and confident that they can share their thoughts and feelings, especially during tough times, and might be the first step to getting further help if they need it.

Start simple

If you’re worried about someone’s wellbeing, you might have a lot of thoughts going around in your head. You might be wondering what’s causing them trouble, whether it’s something you’ve done, or if you should tell someone else about it.

You don’t need to raise all of these questions at once. Start with a simple question or statement, and then make sure you listen to them, instead of spilling all the thoughts you’ve been having.

Conversations starters could be:

“I’ve noticed you’ve been sad/angry/not yourself lately, do you want to tell me about it?”

“How have you been going?”

“I heard/saw you say/do something that made me worried about you, can we talk about it?”

“I’ve been feeling concerned about you.”

“I know that this is what I do when I’m feeling down, and I’ve seen you doing it too. Is there something wrong?”

“Are you okay?”

If they don’t want to talk to you, let them know that you’re still concerned about them and that you’re there for them if they need it. Don’t tell them off or criticise them – they might not be ready to confide in you just yet, but your support is still valuable.

If you're worried, speak up

If you are concerned that someone might be thinking of harming themselves or taking their own life, the best way to find out is to ask them. Asking about suicidal thoughts won’t put the idea of suicide into their head. In fact, giving them the opportunity to talk might reduce the risk of suicide.

If you’re concerned about someone’s immediate health or safety, it’s time to seek expert help.

Do something while you say something

We don’t all feel comfortable sitting opposite someone and talking about our feelings. Some people might feel more comfortable having a chat when they don’t have to make eye contact or when they’re doing something else.

If you don’t want to sit face-to-face, you could bring up the topic while you do another activity. Do something with your hands, like working in the shed or going fishing. Have a chat while you watch the footy on TV, or go for a walk.

Two men are fishing together.

Pick your time and place

When you’re planning to have a conversation, try to pick somewhere that is fairly private and comfortable. Make sure you won’t be rushed, and if they want to open up you have time to listen to them.

Take it online

We’re taught that it’s best to have important conversations in person. But this isn’t always going to suit: your friend might not live close or be available, or you might find talking another way is easier.

There’s nothing wrong with sending a text, chat or email to check in – if you want to meet up in person afterwards you can. It’s better to do something than do nothing at all.

Keep in touch during times of stress

You may think that it’s best to leave someone alone when things aren’t going well, thinking that their problems are none of your business, or that they’ll be embarrassed if you bring it up. But, being there for your mates is one of the most important parts of good relationships.

Lots of different aspects of life can affect someone’s mental health. When the ABS asked men about the reasons they felt stress, the top answers were a serious physical illness, the loss of a close friend or family member, unemployment and divorce or separation.

If someone you know is experiencing something rough, checking in with them as time goes on could help them feel supported and give them an opportunity to talk it through if they want to.

‘Positive’ changes can sometimes be stressful, too. A mate who’s getting married, having a child or retiring from their job might be really excited about this new step in their lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s not causing them any worry. It’s never a bad time to ask how they’re feeling, and let them know that all their emotions are valid.

Don't expect to fix everything yourself

Speaking to a friend, family member or colleague about their mental health doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to fix their problems. Mental health is complex, and not something that can be perfected in one conversation.

But giving someone an opportunity to open up, listening to them and showing that you care might help them to feel supported, and encourage them to get further help if they need it.

A group of men are climbing up a mountain with the sun behind them.

Ask for help

There are lots of resources, online and offline, which you can use to help you help someone else.

BeyondBlue has information, factsheets and forums to help you understand mental health. You can also call their support service on 1300 22 4636, or talk with someone online or by email if you want help, have any questions, or just need to talk to someone.

Lifeline also has information and resources, as well as a 24 hour phone hotline 13 11 14 and a nightly online chat service.

You can also talk to your doctor about your concerns; they can give you information about the different options that might be available to help your friend and also help you if you feel like your worry is getting too much.

RU OK? has information about starting conversations about mental health.

These are just a few resources you might use. You can find a comprehensive list on the RU OK? website here.

If you think someone’s life is in danger or that a situation is an emergency, you should always call Triple Zero (000) straight away.

Look after yourself

It’s important to look after yourself, even when you’re worried about someone else.

Before you start a conversation, make sure that you’re feeling okay and are in a good headspace to listen if they want to talk through any issues.

Afterwards, you might feel like you need to debrief. Talk to someone you trust or write down how you’re feeling. You could also call one of the helplines listed above to talk through the conversation and get further help if needed.