Color & Control:

How to talk to men about mental health

How do you start a conversation with a friend or loved one who you think might be struggling with a mental health problem or mental illness? Sometimes the topic comes up easily and naturally. Other times, not so much.

Tips, questions and conversation starters

Dr. Melanie Badali

Here are some tips to help you START a conversation and talk with men about their mental health: Set the stage, Timing, Ask, Reflect and Think.

Set the stage
Set the stage for a successful conversation by informing yourself about trusted mental health resources. Do your research. Find organizations that offer science-based sources of information and are not trying
to sell you anything. 

For example, to learn more about anxiety, check out free resources at Anxiety Canada. Government, hospital and university websites are also good sources of information. Avoid personal blogs or sites where there is a push for you to buy quick-fix products. 

Knowledge is power, and some people may need informational support in addition to emotional, social, or practical support.

Choose a time when you can devote your full attention to the other person. Pick a space or activity, such as walking, where the person is most likely to feel comfortable and minimize distractions. Put your phone on mute.

Ask open-ended questions. Open questions invite the other person to tell their story in their own words.

Here are some examples of questions and conversation starters you can use to ask someone about their mental health. “How are you holding up under all the pressure of __________ (e.g. losing a parent, having a demanding job, being a new father).” 

Keep in mind that you may need to ask the same question more than once. “What’s *really* going on for you?” “How can I help you with __________?” 

You may want to remind the person that you are trustworthy, care for, and love them no matter what they say. In addition to asking open-ended questions, you also need to listen to the response.

Reflective listening is a skill that engages a person and builds trust. Reflective listening helps you avoid assuming what a person needs or misinterpreting what a person is sharing with you. A phrase you can use is: “It sounds like you….” Here you can repeat, rephrase, paraphrase, or reflect on a feeling, depending on what you think would be most appropriate at the moment. 

Avoid giving advice at this time unless you are asked for it. Not giving advice may be hard because you care and want to help. You may want to “fix” things—resist this temptation. Try to think of this first conversation as planting seeds in a garden and only beginning the process.

Think about how you would want someone to talk to you if you were struggling. Think about who you feel most comfortable confiding in or asking for help. How do they talk? What do they say? What are the non-verbal signs of communication? 

Chances are they express empathy and provide affirmations of your strengths and the positive things you are doing. They probably don’t blame, label, argue, or judge you. Choose your words carefully and compassionately.

Remember that this is the START of a conversation—don’t stop here. Offer support and follow-up. Let the person know you are there for them and seek support for yourself, too, if needed. There is a lot of stigma around men’s mental health, and it’s up to us to help change that. 

Dr. Melanie Badali is a clinical psychologist currently at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic in British Columbia and serves on the Scientific Advisory Committee for Anxiety Canada.

Mental health resources for men:

There a many great resources that you can point him towards. Here are a few examples:

• The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation: A national, registered charity providing information, tools, and motivation for men and their families to live healthier.

• HeadsUpGuys: An online, anonymous resource specifically designed for men, and their families,to prevent the continued erosion of men’s mental health and deaths by suicide.

• Buddy up: a men’s suicide prevention communications campaign.

• Movember: Movember looks at mental health through a male lens, focusing on prevention, early intervention, and health promotion.

• Dudes Club: a participant-led community for men’s health and wellness.

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