Mental health support – are you a good listener?

Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
31 January 2018

What would you do if someone – a loved one, friend or a colleague – opened up to you to say they were feeling low and not doing so well? Would you know how to respond in a way that helps? Many of us aren’t always sure what to do; we want to help but are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

People having coffee

When we hear that someone we care about is struggling, we might have several natural reactions – that while well intended, may not be the response that helps. For example, it’s common to want to:

  • offer solutions or try to fix things: ‘Why don’t you do this...?’ (sometimes this can be helpful – if it’s a very specific problem, but it’s not always that clear-cut)
  • respond by telling a story about yourself: ‘I remember when I...
  • cheer them up or ‘jolly’ them out of it: 'You’ll feel better when the weather gets warmer. You’ve got that nice holiday to look forward to, haven’t you?
  • try to convince them that it isn’t really that bad: 'It’s not so bad – things could be a lot worse...
  • have an initial conversation but then avoid bringing it up again, perhaps because you feel it’s better to carry on as normal, as though nothing is wrong

These reactions often come from a caring place, but also one of fear – the fear of awkwardness, or not knowing what to do, for feeling like you need to have the answers. That if you don’t offer up fixes and solutions then you’re letting that person down.

Offering mental health support

But a lot of the time, there is no immediate fix or solution. And while it takes a huge amount of courage and energy for someone to reach out, this shouldn’t feel like a burden or a responsibility that makes you panic. For starters, it shows that they trust you, and that they value you as a good friend to them.

And here’s the crux of it – often the person reaching out doesn’t want or expect you to fix things for them or make them feel better. They most likely just want to feel like they’re not alone. They often just need you to care and acknowledge; to be their friend, to still invite them for coffee or a drink or shopping. To check in with them, ask them how they are, and then... listen.

The importance of active listening

Many of us are or will be affected by a mental health problem at some point. It’s very common. So it makes sense for us all to know how to open up and talk, and how to listen too.

And you don’t have to be a mental health professional to know what to do or how to help. Often people find that if others just let them be how they are without judgement – that helps.

How can I be a good listener?

  • Give your friend or colleague your full attention when you’re talking with them.
  • Put away your phone so you’re not distracted. If you wear a smart watch, try not to look at it.
  • Show through your body language that you’re fully present in the conversation – turn towards your friend and show openness.
  • Listen with all your senses, your facial expressions and vocalising that you’re listening (uh-hmming, for example) can be reassuring and encouraging.
  • Make eye contact to show that you’re invested and listening.
  • Try not to interrupt if they’re explaining how they feel.
  • Try not to impose your solutions upon them.
  • Practise being silent and showing empathy.
  • Think for a moment before you respond.

Remember that everyone and every situation is different. You’ll know what’s appropriate – whether to offer practical help, or offer a hug. If you don’t know, ask them. It doesn’t always need to be an intense or long talk, once you get started lots of people find the conversation flows naturally.

Sometimes the best response is to let them know that even though you may not know what to say, that you’re here for them. Let them know that if talking to you helps, then you’ll always be there to listen.

Giving someone your time is one of the most important things you can offer. Your compassion, reassurance and patience can help close this gap between those that are reaching out and those of us who want to offer our support and help.

How to spot the signs

The following are some of the signs that may indicate something’s wrong, though it’s important not to make assumptions about anyone’s mental health. However, these early signs are a way to notice when you could check in with your friend and see how they’re doing.

Signs may include:

  • low mood
  • being easily distracted
  • unable to concentrate well
  • being indecisive
  • feeling overwhelmed by everything
  • tiredness and a lack of energy
  • avoiding social situations
  • becoming withdrawn and less talkative
  • being irritable or having a short temper
  • talking quickly or changing the subject a lot
  • becoming aggressive
  • having difficulty controlling their emotions
  • drinking more

Help and information

If you’re worried about someone – a loved one, a friend or a colleague – you can find further help and information here:

To find out more about what living with a mental health condition is like, our Bupa colleagues made these videos to share their stories.

To watch more stories, visit our Bupa YouTube channel.

Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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