Check in on your friends and family—you can be the support system they need, while also improving your own mental health.
Visits to the doctor aren't fun. There's a freezing-cold stethoscope, a stick in your throat and bright light in your eyes. Then come the embarrassing personal questions. We endure these check-ups to spot little health problems before they become big ones. But what about preventative mental health?
Most people don't book an annual check-up with a psychiatrist or counsellor. Yet, as with diabetes or cancer, it's vital to spot issues like depression or anxiety before they become crises. Mental health is finally a real conversation, slowly losing stigma with raised awareness and more sensitive media coverage. We can continue that conversation on a micro level by taking time to check in on the well-being of friends and family.
The first challenge is starting a meaningful dialogue. We all hear "how are you?" so often that most of us now respond with an automatic "fine." But how do you know if they're really "fine"?
It's easier when the distress is obvious. It seems counter-intuitive to pry, but experts say to go straight to the heart of it: "You haven't been as outgoing lately, is everything ok?" or "I know your dad passed away, how are you holding up?"
What if there isn't something obvious? It doesn't mean you shouldn't check in—or that your loved one isn't facing challenges. David O'Malley, professor of social work at Bridgwater State University, Massachusetts, suggests opening with: "What's going well for you right now?" or "If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?" Creative questions lead to more thoughtful contemplation about things that aren't going so well.
If your friend or loved one doesn't want to talk about their feelings or insists they are ok (when you're sure they're not), don't get frustrated. "People have their own time frame to open up—don't force it," says Dr. Nikola Grujich, a psychiatrist with Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital. Simply let the other person know you're there for them.
If they do confide in you and admit they're not in a good place, don't betray their trust by changing the topic, being judgemental or dismissing their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel. Ask them: "What can I do to support you?" But don't launch into problem-solving mode. "The most important lesson I've learned is that people don't necessarily want or need advice. It's about listening," says Grujich.
If they do seek your advice, Grujich recommends helping them come up with their own answers. Respond with: "What do you feel like you should do?"
If they indicate they might need more professional help, give them a shoulder to lean on. Ask if you can assist in researching resources, or if they'd like you to accompany them to a psychiatrist or counsellor so they're not facing it alone.
As we're knee-deep in winter blahs, why not set a goal to check in with one important person in your life every week? Checking in on loved ones is also good for your own mental health. Studies have shown that helping others boosts our own well-being. It might just be the best preventative medicine for you and your loved ones.