Six tips to talk to young people about their mental health

Six tips to help adults have sensitive conversations with young people
Six tips to help adults have sensitive conversations with young people

A mental health charity is sharing six tips for adults who want to talk to young people about their mental health.

With this year's World Mental Health Day theme focusing on young people, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has been working with health campaigner and writer Natasha Devon MBE to put together six tips designed to help adults – be it as a parent, aunt, uncle or friend – in their conversations with youngsters.

The tips are:

Choose the right environment

The right setting is important and will differ depending on the personality of the young person. Some find a quiet, calm space with lots of eye contact essential to connect during conversation, others find it too intense. There’s a lot of evidence to show ‘shoulder to shoulder’ communication - doing something like walking or driving alongside talking - can encourage people to open up as there’s a distracting activity to make it less awkward. Whatever the environment, ensure you have time to commit to the conversation.

Gauge the amount of knowledge in the room

Improvements to mental health education, as well as the wealth of information which can be found on the internet, often means young people know more about the topic than you might suspect. Whilst young people tend to have a vast breadth of knowledge on mental health, they can lack depth of understanding – and that’s where you can come in. See yourself as someone who is colouring in the lines they’ve already drawn (as well as, of course, erasing any errors in the form of misinformation and unhelpful stereotypes).

Don’t ‘freak out’!

I hear all the time from the young people I work with ‘I can’t tell my Mum/Dad, they’ll freak out’. Your first job is to assuage that fear. It is tremendously hard for a parent to hear that their child is suffering, and you have every right to feel your own emotions about that but try to put in a box marked ‘deal with later’. When a young person is opening up to you, show them in your language and tone that you are genuinely interested, aren’t judging them and will remain calm.

Ask open questions

Words, particularly when they relate to mental health, can be subject to a huge amount of interpretation. Don’t assume the way they use the word ‘anxious’ is the same as how you would. As questions such as ‘what does that feel like?’, ‘how long have you felt like this?’ and ‘do you have any idea why’? In this way, you not only allow yourself to gauge where they are coming from, you demonstrate the interest and lack of judgment which is so crucial.

Don’t try to ‘solve’ it

You could be the most singularly gifted psychotherapist the world has ever seen and you still wouldn’t be able to practice on your friends and family. It’s a conflict of interest. As frustrating as it might be to not be able to ‘fix’ it for them, you still have a crucial role to play. When we the tell people we love about our problems we generally aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking for empathy. Research has shown that making a person feel understood and valued raises their self-esteem, which in turn improves their brain chemistry. Just by having the conversation, you have helped.

Learn Together

It’s okay if you’re not an expert on mental health. In fact, if there are issues affecting your loved ones you wish you knew more about, it’s a great opportunity for you to go on a learning curve together. Remember, we *all* have mental health, in just the same way as we all have a status of physical health – so it’s really important young people understand that, and feel comfortable discussing it.