A safe space is essential for an authentic and supportive mental health conversation.
One of the primary reasons that individuals struggle in silence is the stigma associated with mental health. Essentially, we fear our loved one’s reaction. Will I be judged? Will I be invalidated? Will they not love me anymore? What if they do not understand? What if they do not care? What if they do not believe me? These are just a few of the questions that play on repeat through someone’s head when they want to reach out for help.
Often times, people do not want to struggle in silence. Yet, they feel like they have to, because opening up feels like a burden. In addition, it is devastating to be invalidated.
So, how do we let our loved ones know that we are here for them?
In my opinion, one of the biggest factors is how we discuss mental health on a regular basis. When we use words like “crazy, deranged, and psychopath” to label someone with a mental illness or who may be experiencing a mental health crisis, we are contributing to the stigma. Now, it may not seem like a big deal in the moment, but your loved ones will remember you using those words when they are struggling. This may cause hesitation on whether or not they open up to you.
Another factor, in my opinion, is the occurrence of honest conversations on mental health, emotions, and life experiences. How often do you engage in real conversations about how you are? And how often do you sincerely ask and answer “How are you?” When you show your own vulnerability, it creates a deeper connection. This connection allows someone to feel like they can also be vulnerable. Vulnerability has been given a bad reputation, but the most beautiful connections and conversations are created in the midst of vulnerability.
In addition to how and when we discuss mental health on a routine basis, the way we respond during a mental health conversation / check-in is essential.
Here is the thing: we are all continuously learning how to offer proper support and validation within mental health conversations. It truly is a learning process because the conversation is unique for everyone. Everyone experiences mental health conditions, symptoms, and crises in different ways; thus, the proper responses will vary person to person.
Here are some examples of variations:
- Where does validation cross the line from helpful to harmful?
- How much support should you offer? When is it the time to hold their hand and when is the time to just be there?
- How often do I check-in? If I check-in too much, is it overbearing? If I do not check-in enough, am I being insensitive?
- Should I share my ideas on what may be helpful, or should I stay out of it?
- Do I tell someone else what my loved one disclosed to me or do I keep it to myself? What if it has to do with self-harm or suicidal thoughts? If I tell someone, will they never open up to me again?
In summary, yes, the conversation on mental health is very complicated. However, that does not mean the conversation is not necessary. If we do not talk about it, our loved ones will continue to struggle in silence. And silence is deadly.
Here are my tips to creating a safe space during the conversation.
- Ask open-ended questions. This shows the person opening up that you are interested in a discussion and not ending the conversation.
- Try to remove any judgement from your tone. If you do not understand, ask a question in a supportive manner. Ex. “I have never personally experienced X, and I want to be supportive, but I am not sure what the best thing I can do for you is. Would you mind explaining it more or how I can help?”
- Emphasize support. “I am here for you. You are not alone in this. What can I do to offer my support?”
- Validate feelings. “It makes sense that you feel …”
- Follow up. The safe space should not end when the conversation does. Let your loved one know that you always have space for them.