How to start a conversation about mental health

  • 07 Sep 2021

By Amanda Whitlock, Mental Health & Wellbeing Consultant, Total Wellbeing Matters

Mental health is a major news topic at the moment and employers are being asked to ensure that their staff are not struggling. However, it can be a little overwhelming to talk about mental health, especially if it is not a topic you have never broached before.

We all have mental health and it is shown by the way we think, the way we feel and our sense of wellbeing. When we talk about mental health, we are not always talking about mental illness. We have become much more comfortable over the years to talk about our physical health but we are still unsure when we talk to others about their mental health.


The following tips will help you identify any issues among your staff and help you address them:

Spot the signs

Often there are triggers that lead to changes in our mental health. Some life events such as bereavement or relationship breakdown can adversely affect someone’s wellbeing. However, there may be no obvious cause as to why a person is feeling mentally unwell. We are all individual and we all react differently to the situations around us.

There may be some signs that someone may have poor mental health. You may notice that they are always tired or more withdrawn than normal. They may be tearful or appear distracted. They may be uncooperative at work or they may have issues with timekeeping or productivity. The reality is there may be many ways in which a person may reveal they are having problems – the key is to notice a change in behaviour and then talk to them about it.

Talk about it

Starting a conversation about mental health can feel uncomfortable and you may feel that you are moving into new territory for you and your staff. However, the more you talk about mental health and the more you encourage your staff to respond, the easier it gets.

It is fundamentally a human connection between two people. It is showing genuine concern about another’s wellbeing. You should act with compassion and have a genuine interest in starting a conversation. Your staff need to trust you and they will need reassurance that you are there to support them, not to judge them.

Choose a private space to start the conversation, somewhere you can both feel comfortable. A neutral space such as a coffee shop can sometimes feel less intimidating. It’s important to give enough time for the conversation and to ensure that you will not be interrupted.


Don’t just ask them how they are – most people will reply with “I’m fine!” Ask them how they are feeling because you have noticed that they don’t seem to be themselves. Share instances of where you have concerns.

Listen to what they say

Respect their feelings, experiences and values, even if you do not share them. Ask them how long they have been feeling like this, who they have to give them support and ask if there is anything you can do to help. The most important thing is to be genuine and show that you care.

Direct them to further support

It may be useful to have an awareness of suitable resources that you can share with them. Direct them to national organisations such as MIND – their website has a whole host of useful articles and downloadable support packs. Encourage them to contact their GP – they may not be mental health specialists but they can refer onto the relevant services and treatment.

Have an emergency plan

If a person talks about thoughts of suicide or self-harming, remain calm and do not be afraid of continuing the conversation. You will not be putting thoughts into their head that were not there already. If you feel that the person is at real risk of suicide do not hesitate to call 999. Stay with the person until professional help arrives.

Protect your own health too

Talking to a person experiencing mental distress can be shocking and unsettling. It is very important that you take steps to protect your own mental health. It is OK to have boundaries – don’t agree to giving any support that would put you under too much pressure or makes you feel uncomfortable.


Action for Happiness has produced an evidenced-based ‘10 Keys for Happier Living’. These are areas where we can all take practical action to boost our wellbeing and help prevent depression and anxiety.

It is important to identify those things that boost your sense of wellbeing and improve your mood. These will be individual to you whether it’s going for a run, playing a musical instrument, practising meditation or chatting to friends. Find those things that give you joy and actively include them in your life.

Do not feel guilty for prioritising your own mental health – you cannot help others if you don’t firstly take care of yourself.

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