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How to Address & Support Mental Health

Chances are we all know someone who's struggling with unspoken issues. Here's  how to recognize it, thoughtfully reach out, and help.

What's the best way to help someone who is struggling? We want to be supportive of friends, colleagues, and coworkers, but interacting in a virtual environment brings new levels of complexity to addressing mental health issues in the office. How do you initiate a conversation without fear of offending?

Recognize

It’s not always easy to recognize when someone is struggling. In many instances, they may be adept at hiding it; others may not even know there’s something wrong. Here are a few signs that indicate someone may need help.

  1. Decreased productivity and engagement. Mental health issues can manifest in many ways, including lack of sleep, increased anxiety levels, and lack of productivity. At work, someone suffering may seem withdrawn and less able to readily engage with colleagues.
  2. Changes in appearance and workspace. While not always easy to glean in a virtual setting, a disheveled appearance or unorganized workspace might be an indicator that something is amiss--especially when it’s inconsistent with a colleague's typical image.
  3. Substantial periods of time away from work, lengthy breaks during the day, or consistently showing up late to meetings or logging off early. While it's common to need occasional time off from time to time to decompress, frequent absences and tardiness may suggest that something more is going on.
  4. Volatile behavior--including severe highs and lows in their overall attitude towards work and their colleagues, and prolonged episodes of unusual behavior compared to their usual demeanor--is one of the most telling signs that someone is dealing with mental health issues.

Reach Out

Recognizing that a colleague may need help is stressful, and broaching the subject with them can be challenging--which is why it’s imperative to do it with sensitivity and empathy. Here are some things to keep in mind when reaching out. 

Strategies for starting the conversation

  1. Find a time when there’s little potential for distractions. While the end of the day is usually ideal , consider whether they may have commitments in the evening and work to best accommodate them. 
  2. Establish open and judgment-free spaces to talk. Make sure they feel psychologically safe to share, and allow them to share as much or as little as they’d like.
  3. Begin by asking them if there’s something on their mind or bothering them. Perhaps begin with, “You don’t seem like yourself lately, what’s going on?” or “You’ve been acting a bit differently recently, and I don’t want to make any false assumptions, so I wanted to check in with you to make sure everything is alright.”
  4. Normalize mental health by talking about it directly. Let the person know you're there to listen. Acknowledge that the impact of the pandemic has caused an extraordinary amount of stress, difficulty, and suffering. Even if their issues are not directly related, this reminds them that they're not alone and that you understand and empathize.


Engage and Maintain 

These types of conversations are complex and rarely easy. Remember: while it may feel uncomfortable for you, it’s much more difficult for the other person. You want to tread lightly, but also to identify the issues they’re dealing with and find ways to offer help. As this can be a delicate balance, here are a few tips to help guide the discussion.

  1. Provide space to allow the person to open up and  share as much as they’re comfortable with. If they don’t open up entirely, that’s ok--if you push too hard, they may become defensive and more anxious. Let them do the talking, and then ask, "What's the best way I can support you right now?"
  2. It can be helpful to share your own challenging life experiences, but remember that this is their time. Allow them to ask if they would like to hear what you’ve been through before sharing. Don't compare your experience directly to theirs--while your situations may seem similar in some regards, every experience is unique.
  3. Avoid cliches like "everything happens for a reason." Such statements may feel belittling, or make it seem as though you’re not actively listening. Instead, continue to ask questions such as, "How are you feeling about X?" or “How would you have liked that to happen differently?”
  4. A genuine "I'm sorry" can go a long way in making someone feel heard and validated. It also helps to acknowledge that these things are difficult and offer your sympathy throughout the conversation. Towards the end of your chat, remind them that you genuinely care about them and are invested in their wellbeing. Thank them for opening up to you, and ask them if they’re feeling any better, or if there’s anything you can do to help.

When and how to provide additional support

After someone confides in you, follow up with them regularly to make sure that they know you’re always there for them. Conduct additional research on your own to better understand what they’re going through, and how you can best provide support. Finally, ask them if they’d like your assistance in finding professional help.

It’s never easy to ask for help--especially in light of the enduring stigma of mental health issues--but with the support and encouragement of someone who cares, the ask becomes that much less daunting.

Additional Mental Health Resources:

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