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How to be a safe space for your loved ones to talk about their mental health

It’s CMHA’s Mental Health Week (May 1-7, 2023)!  In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health challenge. Because mental health affects all of us in one way or another, it’s important that everyone has a safe space to speak openly about how they’re really doing.  

As a friend, sibling, neighbour, or peer, you have an important role in ensuring those around you have a safe space to talk about their feelings and ask for support. Part of being a safe space for someone you care about also means showing you’re a safe space so that they feel comfortable approaching you. 

To help you better understand how you can be a safe space for your loved ones and normalize conversations about mental health, our knowledgeable Clinical Psychologists from our Ontario Structured Psychotherapy program are sharing their insights. 

Two females having a conversation

1) Express vulnerability by talking about your own experiences

Express emotional vulnerability and availability in everyday actions; it can be easier if others see you are receptive to vulnerable discussions if you are vulnerable yourself. You can do this by being open and honest when you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad or anxious. 

Talk about your past mental health challenges if you’re comfortable doing so. Be open about your mental health experiences – often, hearing others’ stories reminds us that we’re not alone. Plus, the more we can normalize conversations about mental health, the less awkward it is to initiate conversations about mental health. 

If you have tools or resources that help you maintain positive mental health, share them with others. 

Remember, vulnerability is generated by sharing our experiences openly in a bi-directional manner. Just because someone is dealing with a tough time, does not mean we can’t also share with them the difficulties we are experiencing. They might also want to be there for you in some capacity by providing reciprocity in the relationship. If you are uncertain about whether they have the capacity to talk about certain topics, ask them directly beforehand.  

Male speaking on the phone

2) Be available and initiate check-ins

Be open with the people you care about and let them know you’re available whenever they need to talk to someone. You can do this by saying any of the following in a text or in person when the time is right: 

  • “If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m happy to listen” 
  • “I’m always here for you, to talk or for a distraction” 
  • “I’m around today if you want to chat”  

If you’re already aware that your loved one is struggling with their mental health, show you’re there for them by checking in regularly. Here are some conversation starters:  

  • “How are you doing? Anything I can help with?” 
  • “What does today look like for you?” 
  • “Last time we spoke, you shared some challenges. Did you want to talk about it today? Or did you want me to talk as a distraction?”  
Father and son having a conversation

3) Lead with empathy and listen someone shares their experiences

When a loved one is sharing an emotional experience, give them your full attention – put away your phones/devices and pause any distracting activities happening around you. 

Ask if they want help with problem-solving or just need someone to empathetically listen. 

When listening, maintain eye contact if in person and validate their experiences and emotions with phrases like, “That sounds challenging,” “I’m sorry to hear that happened,” or “It sounds like you are doing everything you can in a difficult situation.” 

You may feel the need to “fix” their problems but stay away from offering solutions of your own. Instead, ask if they want help to problem-solve or whether they would just like you to empathetically listen and hold space for them.  

Two friends hugging

4) Be trustworthy

Aside from situations where safety is a factor, if a loved one confides in you, keep what they share to yourself and ask if they would like to speak with a professional. 

If your loved one expresses interest in seeking professional support, you can share information about CMHA and other local mental health services. To learn more about our free programs, click here. 

Offer to be there for them when they write an email or make a phone call to inquire about a service. 

Male meditating in yoga class

5) Prioritize your well-being

In order to be there for others, you need to prioritize your own mental health and well-being. Just like the oxygen mask on a plane analogy; you need to put your own gas mask on first before helping someone else. Here are three ways you can prioritize your mental health:  

  • Set aside time for activities you enjoy – Engage in activities that provide a sense of achievement and/or enjoyment such as running, reading, knitting, seeing friends, or whatever is nourishing for you! 
  • Set boundaries – Maintain boundaries with others as needed; let them know when you are or are not available (e.g. “I have to run errands from 2-4 PM, but I am available before then.”) 
  • Ask for help – Reach out to your own social support network if needed (while being mindful of the privacy of the person you are supporting). Talk to a mental health professional if you are struggling with coping on your own 

We are here for you!  CMHA offers more than 30 free mental health and addiction programs and services for youth, adults and family caregivers in York Region and South Simcoe. Click here to find a CMHA program that is right for you or someone you care about. 

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