How to Start a Mental Health Conversation with a Colleague
You’ve noticed a colleague hasn’t been himself lately. He’s showing up uncharacteristically late, consistently gets later and with greater frequency, and has almost entirely withdrawn from socializing at work. He no longer attends team functions outside the office, seems to be showing a drastic change in demeanor, and turns to frustration or anger quite quickly.
These are all just observations on your part, but as a concerned friend, it might be time to start a mental health conversation with him.
We’re all different in how we act, react and carry ourselves. Just because someone appears to have a low mood, is quiet or has withdrawn from social situations doesn’t mean they have a mental health issue. Furthermore, many commonly misunderstood behaviours can be signs of a mental health concern or illness.
If your colleague’s changes in behaviour have developed recently, he may just be dealing with a common mental wellness concern, such as situational stress caused by a heavy workload or challenges at home. But when the signs have been present for an extended period, they may be developing – or have developed – into a mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
Signs that may indicate a mental health problem could include erratic or unusual changes in attitudes or actions, isolation, low mood, prolonged sadness, frequent absence from work, unreliability, fluctuation in weight, deterioration of physical appearance or hygiene, or any other clear differences in how one presents or conducts themselves.
Commonly, people have reservations about raising the topic of mental wellness with others, often in fear of being wrong about their concerns and embarrassing the person they approach, so the subject is avoided altogether. But let’s look at it from a different viewpoint. If your colleague had a cast on his arm, that would be an obvious sign that it’s broken. You’d ask how it happened and how he’s feeling.
“Given potential consequences of untreated mental illness can be severe, having the conversation is the best option in any circumstance,” said Aleta Armstrong, senior manager of community awareness for Canadian Mental Health Association Simcoe County.
By starting a conversation with someone you’re concerned about, you’re demonstrating that they’re valued. Whether they accept your help or resist, you’ve shown you can be a source of support, and they may confide in you when the time is right.
Starting a conversation may also be an opportunity to help your colleague navigate workplace policies. He may be preoccupied and unaware of your employer’s supports, such as health benefits, an employee assistance program, or options for workplace accommodation. Under human rights legislation, employers have a duty to accommodate a medical disability, whether physical or mental.
Ask your colleague if he’d be willing to chat. Have the conversation in a setting that would be comfortable and non-intimidating to him, such as on a walk, a drive or in a private place. When you begin the conversation, ask open-ended questions and listen non-judgementally.
If you’re correct in your assertion and he opens up, empathize and look for subtle hints to move the conversation along for as long as he’s willing, but don’t pry.
As a dialogue progresses, you may find his situation to be serious and you’re worried about self-harm. At that point, it’s critically important to ask directly: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Asking specifically about suicide removes any grey area that may be lost in translation and allows you to gauge the severity of the challenges your colleague is facing.
If he’s in crisis, encourage him to contact support such as a local crisis telephone line, the Canada Suicide Prevention Service or 911. Stay with him until he’s safe or other support is in place. If he’s not in crisis, this is an opportunity to help him find community mental health supports and options that may be available through your workplace.
If you’re wrong about your concerns, if he denies any problems, or if he responds poorly, your reaction should be the same: listen non-judgementally and reaffirm your support. If he’s in denial, you’ve planted the seed and he may come back to you later. Don’t be afraid to check in again, as many individuals experiencing a mental health problem may find difficulty in sharing personal feelings at first.
Starting conversations on mental health with people you care about can be difficult, and it’s hard to know how to approach it best. Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has branches in each province and one territory that offers training workshops that teach core skills to aid someone in mental distress. CMHA Ontario and local CMHA branches offer programs across the province, such as safeTALK, Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.
Bill Howatt is the chief of research for workforce productivity at the Conference Board of Canada
Camille Quenneville is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Division