Why it’s good to talk: expert advice on starting a mental health conversation

Learn how to have a chat about mental health today

Mental health charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness aim to encourage openness about mental health by encouraging more of us to share how we’re feeling.

A problem shared is a problem halved as the old saying goes, but talking about your mental health is not always easy. As a result, many of us don’t talk about it, but as the experts we’ve spoken to explain below, it’s important we do.

Two women in a lounge sitting chattingCredit: Shutterstock / Dejan Dundjerski

Research for Time to Talk Day 2023 (which was February 2 this year) revealed that more than a third of adults (that’s almost 20 million of us) never find the time to talk about mental health.  

Time to Talk Day is run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in partnership with Time to Change Wales, See Me Scotland, and Change Your Mind/Inspire in Northern Ireland.  

Kerry Anthony is CEO of Inspire and feels part of our reluctance to talk about mental health is due to the stigma that exists around the term.  

“This research shows us that people think speaking about mental health is important, but still struggle to do so,” she explains.

“There is still a significant degree of stigma around mental health and far too many people – of all ages and genders – still find it hard to talk about how they are feeling and find support.

“Time to Talk Day gives us all the chance to refocus on the strength and importance of asking, talking, and listening.” 

Talking helps us feel less alone

The cost of living crisis is also hugely affecting the nation’s mental health and making us more reluctant to talk about how we’re feeling.  

Almost half of the 5,251 adults polled as part of Time to Talk Day 2023 said their main reasons for having fewer conversations about mental health were because either ‘it doesn’t feel right as everyone is struggling right now’ or they didn’t want to ‘burden’ others. 

Yet, it’s so important to put aside a little time and space to have a conversation about mental health, explains Mind’s chief executive, Sarah Hughes.

“We know that talking about our mental health and listening to others about their experiences can help us feel less alone, more able to cope, and encouraged to seek support if we need to.”

When those polled were asked what might help make talking about mental health a little easier, respondents said having more knowledge and understanding of the topic would make a difference.

Tips on how to start a mental health conversation would be useful too, the research found. And that’s what we’ll break down next. 

Getting started

How to have a chat about mental health

The aim of Time to Talk Day is to encourage everyone to be more open to the idea of talking. We need to look after our mental health, and it can affect us both fleetingly and on more of an ongoing basis for a multitude of reasons.  

For example, a stint of not sleeping well can make us feel quite emotional and less able to function as normal. We can also encounter stressful situations at work or at home that adversely impact our mental health. What can help is talking about it and checking in with others to ask how they’re doing too. 

Ask questions

This can help to provide space for the person you’re having a conversation with to share how they’re feeling. Beginning by simply asking how they are doing can be a great way in, without putting any pressure on the conversation.  

Asking some open questions can help to keep the chat going. Time to Talk suggests trying ‘how does that affect you’ or ‘what does it feel like’ to help someone open up.

Female friends having a coffee togetherCredit: Shutterstock / Nuva Frames
Taking time out is important

Location, location, location

It’s often much easier to chat openly when we are side by side with someone rather than face-to-face. Talking while you’re out on a walk or bike ride together, or while you’re stuck in traffic, busy baking or even just having a natter over a cuppa are all great options.  

Perspective

Offering much-needed perspective

When something is troubling us, we can start to feel as though the problem is all-consuming.  

“When we’re feeling low, most people have a tendency to ruminate over their problems,” explains clinical psychologist, Dr Linda Blair. “But inside your head, there are no dimensions so a nagging worry can gradually become very large and really start to consume your thoughts.  

“The joy of talking to someone about how you’re feeling is that it can lead to you receiving some much-needed perspective. We often feel a lot better simply for letting someone else know what’s on our mind.”  

Blair also advises everyone can benefit from keeping a worry notebook, where you jot down concerns and gain a little more clarity on them. Blair suggests the ideal time for making a note of your worries is early morning or late evening, just before you go to bed. 

Woman thinking about what to write in her journalCredit: Shutterstock / shurkin_son

Spot the signs

How to spot when you need to chat

If a physical health problem continued to affect you for more than two weeks, it’s likely you would have considered seeking medical advice. Yet we don’t tend to apply that same logic when it comes to our mental health, despite it being just as important. 

“When a problem has hung around for more than two weeks or you have a constant worry running through your mind that just doesn’t go away, this is a big indicator that you could benefit from receiving some support,” Blair advises.  

This could be in the form of a gentle conversation with a caring friend or partner to try and shed some light on how you could tackle what’s on your mind currently. 

“When your mental health is interfering with what psychologists call ‘activities of daily living,’ this is another red flag to seek support,” Blair adds.  

“It’s about noticing when how you’re feeling is preventing you from engaging in what you like or need to do, such as not feeling able to go shopping or no longer feeling up to taking part in your favourite exercise class, for example. If how you are feeling is starting to interfere with your life in this way, it really deserves attention,” she urges. 

Embrace a passion

“Painting in a public place is a great mental health ice breaker”

Andy Hollinghurst, 61, was forced into early retirement on ill health grounds aged just 45. The cause of his illness was depression and anxiety, which led to a mental health breakdown. Andy always had a passion and talent for art, and took up painting again as part of his recovery.  

A chance meeting with a local artist who ran an art fair following a Mind event inadvertently led to him having his own studio at the Corn Exchange in Doncaster Market. He now paints outside his studio three times a week and talks about mental health regularly as people come to look at his work. 

“I haven’t seen what I do happening in many other places, but especially not in markets,” Hollinghurst explains. “So, people are quite surprised and fascinated to come across me painting outside my studio. They take the time to come and look at my art and what I’m currently working on.  

“And even if they aren’t really into art, they’ll often start chatting. If it feels appropriate, I’ll begin to open up about my mental health and I think this then gives them permission to share how they are feeling too.” 

An artist in a thick coat standing in his market stall surrounded by paintings.Credit: Mind / Andy Hollinghurst
Andy, 61, took up painting again as part of his recovery.  

People of all different ages have opened up to him about their mental health and he says painting is a great ice breaker. Hollinghurst also feels part of his role is to signpost people to support services, particularly if they acknowledge they’re having a tough time.  

“If it’s clear that someone needs some support, I always ask if they have been to see their GP yet. I also recommend they look at Mind online and I give them leaflets too. If you find yourself in a place where you feel lonely and stuck, please have a chat with your GP,” he urges. “That’s often the first step towards getting the help and support you may need.” 

Being kind to yourself is so important too, Hollinghurst adds. “It starts with having someone you feel able to talk to. I’ve been very lucky as I’ve had a supportive partner all the way through my illness and recovery, and I know it’s been difficult for her too.

“Being on the market has really helped me so much and it’s great to know that I’m helping others too.” 

For more information about Time to Talk Day, visit: timetotalkday.co.uk. You can also follow the conversation on social media via #TimeToTalk 

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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