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Dig a little deeper – Five ways to help a mate’s mental health

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By Alexandra Whitehead

Every year, October shines a spotlight on mental health awareness with the ultimate goal focussed on reducing stigma and encouraging open and honest conversations to improve mental health in both men and women across Australia. But sometimes all these fantastic resources and promotions skip over the very thing we all need to know – how to help.

I want you to pretend you’re in the crib room with your crew. How confident are you that you’d know if something was wrong with a work mate? And, if you suspected that a mate was struggling, how confident are you that you’d reach out and help, or know how to help?

It takes courage to ask someone directly if they’re ok, mainly because we’re not sure how to react if the answer is no. If your mate hurt their leg and they tell you they’re fine but can barely walk, you’d see through this and act to help. It’s not always this clear with mental health though. If someone says “I’m fine” but they look like they haven’t slept in a week, chances are they’re not okay. While it can be an awkward conversation, reaching out so they know they have a supporter can make all the difference.

Here are some ways to reach out to a mate and push past the awkward feeling to make them feel HEARD (remember these letters for when the conversation presents itself)

How are you going?

  • If you notice your mate is struggling, ask them if they’re ok, but do it somewhere fairly private and comfortable – i.e. ask them over a beer after work, rather than at morning briefing
  • Be relaxed, friendly and genuine in expressing your concern
  • Use specific examples to demonstrate why you’ve become concerned – e.g. “you don’t look like you’re sleeping mate. How are you going?”
  • If your mate confides that they’re not ok, try responding with “I’m sorry to hear that” then ask them if they’d like to talk
  • Avoid confrontation – respect their space if they don’t want to talk but let them know you’re concerned and there if they need.

Empathic Listening

  • The most important thing is to listen free of judgement
    • Take them seriously, don’t rush the conversation, or interrupt with comments or suggestions

Ask, don’t answer

  • In most cases people aren’t looking for advice, but someone to listen and empathise with
    • Stick to asking questions rather than providing answers – e.g. “Has this happened before? What did you do in the past that helped?”, “What can you do for yourself right now to relax/de-stress?”
    • People are often comforted by knowing they aren’t alone in their experience. If it’s genuine, you can empathise with them and provide examples – e.g. “When I went through a hard time I found this helped…”

Recommend a professional

  • It’s ok if your mate needs help you’re not qualified to give, that’s what mental health professionals are for
  • If someone has been struggling with their mental health for more than 2 weeks, you could encourage them to see a health professional such as their GP or a psychologist
  • Be positive about seeking professional help – e.g. “Maybe you would find it useful connecting with someone who can support you. I’m happy to help you find someone.”

Don’t forget about you

  • It’s important to make sure you’re aware of your own mental health and resilience
  • Supporting someone going through a difficult time can be mentally and emotionally draining
  • Don’t be afraid to set up boundaries – it doesn’t make you any less of a friend if you need to connect your mate to someone else who can support them
  • Make sure you’re getting your own support – have people you trust to talk to when you feel under the weather.

Maintaining our wellbeing and looking after our mental health is essential to living a long and happy life. Mental health topics are becoming increasingly popular with many sports stars and celebrities publicly sharing their own current and previous mental health issues. It’s not rocket science – but it’s certainly made easier when we have people looking out for us. Remember to notice those around you and start the conversation that could lead to increasing their wellbeing.


Alexandra Whitehead is a registered MBA qualified psychologist who loves to see each of her clients grow and develop through psychology and performance coaching. She can be contacted at Be Psyched and Becon Health.

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