How Do You Talk To Someone Mentally Unwell?

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If this blog isn’t a place for also writing about issues I don’t have answers for, and is pure catharsis, then I don’t know what I am even doing. This post is that today. Let’s just say, for the sake of privacy, I know someone going through both something traumatic and by causation is also going through mental unwellness. This has been something bothering me for a number of weeks now, but which became salient again today, ergo this post.

How do you talk to someone going through something traumatic and awful? How do you talk to someone going through mental unwellness? By mental unwellness, I mean anything under that umbrella, but in this specific case, I mean self-harm.

What to do about it, if anything?

If this person had cancer, of any kind, wouldn’t I feel more at ease asking them about it? Talking to them about it? At least, a cursory, “How are you doing? How are you feeling?” Is that even the right way to talk to someone going through cancer?

But when I know someone is going through mental unwellness, I feel more reticent about broaching that subject, about asking them how they are doing and how they are feeling. Should it be this way? Is that the right tact?

To be clear, I wouldn’t ask someone going through cancer or someone going through mental unwellness how they are doing or broaching that subject in front of others. I would do it one-on-one, if I were to do it.

But should I? Is that proper? Is it better to pretend everything is okay? Is it better to save them the internal shame they are feeling — EVEN THOUGH THEY SHOULD NOT BE FEELING SHAME, to be abundantly clear about that in all caps — and not broach the subject?

I feel useless. As someone who is passionate about mental health issues, but not expertly trained in it, I feel useless. I don’t mean to make it about me, but I want to know what to do. I don’t like feeling useless, and I don’t like leaving this hanging. I want this person to know I am here for them, that I am here if they want to talk about the issues they are going through.

But I feel like I can’t say even that much. Again, useless.

I don’t have wise words here, folks. This is is a shrug emoji blog post. I don’t have the answers. I’m asking the questions instead because I don’t know.

Nobody should suffer in silence, no matter the ailment, and yet.

Nobody should suffer alone, no matter the ailment, and yet.

Nobody should feel like shame or stigma about their ailment, no matter the ailment, and yet.

“And yet” is crushing me today.

Is there anything we can do about someone suffering through trauma and mental unwellness, or are we supposed to let them fight that battle, and if they broach the subject, then we can do our tour of duty in helping them, whatever that looks like?

I wish I knew these answers. I don’t know everything, even in the arena of something I am intensely passionate about and, I thought, well-researched in. But there are still things I’m learning about mental illness to this day, no matter how much focus I put into it.

One of those things I don’t know anything about is how to communicate, if at all, to someone going through mental unwellness.

I also feel stupid here. I’m looking at a few websites that have suggestions for how to communicate, and one of them is a simple, “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about it now. I’m here whenever.”

I can’t imagine saying that, even though that’s exactly what I’d want to say. I genuinely can’t. Is this a me thing or what?

You can’t force these things, but at the same time, by even being the one to initiate a conversation … it sure seems like forcing it, in a way.

I know all of the things not to say, but none of what to say and how to say it, if at all.

You know what bothers me the most? I’ve read extensively about stigma with mental health, and I’ve written extensively about ending stigma, and yet, I feel a prisoner to it as well. Is it stigma that prevents me from asking how someone mentally unwell is doing? It sure seems so going back to the analogy with someone afflicted with cancer.

That frustrates me. Where’s the line between being tactful and being constrained by stigma?

If you’ve dealt with something similar, how did you deal with it?

4 thoughts

  1. It is difficult to talk to someone having mental health issues. My son is going through some stuff right now. A relapse with drinking and severe depression and anxiety. I always tell him that I believe in him, that I love him. That I’m only a phone call away. I tell him to address the depression with medication and therapy. Seek help. I never feel like I’m saying the perfect thing, but I do try. This person you wrote about, just reach out to them. Sometimes a simple conversation can help. It doesn’t have to be about the mental health stuff, it can be about anything. Sports, politics, family, movies etc… Just talk. You can’t fix a person, but you can be the support they urgently need. Silence is never the answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well-said. Sorry to hear about that with him, but hopefully making that lifeline known and available helps in some way. It’s tough as hell to know what to do or how to do it. It feels like a minefield.


  2. Sorry that your friend is going through some difficult things. The fact that you are worried about them and care for them is already one step towards helping them. These definitely are worthy questions to consider, and while I don’t have any real answers either, I agree with the comment above: just being there for a person dealing with mental unwellness can be a great comfort to that person, and they may open up when the time is right. Also, words may never be perfect, but I think someone could see the good intention behind whatever words you say, especially when the concern and care are genuine as they are. Keeping your friend in my prayers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tirza, thank you for reading and your kind words and prayers! I appreciate that. Right, regarding good intentions. I think I feel an added sense of pressure to find the perfect set of words, but that’s unrealistic.

      Liked by 1 person

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