By: Niku Sedarat
As humans, we naturally tend to avoid discomfort. Whether it's sitting awkwardly in a ZOOM breakout room waiting for someone to unmute or waving back at someone who wasn't waving at us, these uncomfortable moments are all too real. However, discomfort becomes particularly significant in conversations about mental health due to the stigma, shame, and secrecy that have surrounded these topics for far too long. However, to break free from this silence and promote open dialogue, we must learn to find comfort in uncomfortable conversations.
Many individuals want to support each other and create nurturing environments, but when it comes to discussing mental health, they often feel uncertain about where to start. As someone who advocates for mental health and has engaged in countless conversations, I have become adept at embracing discomfort.
The first crucial step in having these important conversations is understanding and being aware of the warning signs of mental health challenges. Numerous platforms like Active Minds, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and unitè: mental health for the youth by the youth offer valuable information about symptoms, risk factors, and resources for various mental health issues.
Once you recognize the signs of mental health challenges in a loved one, it is crucial to approach the conversation in a safe and supportive manner. Though uncomfortable, these discussions are essential, as early intervention and prevention of mental health crises can save lives. Contrary to common belief, research shows that directly asking someone if they are having thoughts of hurting themselves does not plant the idea in their mind, so it is important to be direct when you think someone may be experiencing a mental health challenge.
In these conversations, using the validate, appreciate, and refer (VAR), a model created by Active Minds is highly effective. First, validate the person by acknowledging that their feelings are valid and that they are not alone. Then, appreciate the courage it took for them to share their struggles with their mental health. Lastly, refer them to trustworthy resources like 988 (the suicide and prevention hotline), the crisis textline (741-741), or a trusted loved one. Notably, giving advice is not part of the VAR model because, as non-professionals, we should not provide mental health support, as our advice may be biased or unhelpful. While it might be challenging to avoid giving advice initially, replacing it with validation and appreciation can be a helpful step.
During these uncomfortable conversations, it is crucial to set your own boundaries and prioritize your mental health. Take care of yourself before, during, and after these discussions, as your well-being is paramount. Ultimately, utilizing the VAR model can guide your conversations, knowing that these uncomfortable discussions can quite literally save lives.