Starting a conversation about mental health

Many small business owners work long hours and can often be on their own. Having people around them to check in on how they are doing can make all the difference.

Have you noticed changes in someone’s behaviour recently? Has a business owner you know been doing it tough financially, been impacted by a weather event, or impacted by change? Do you know someone who works on their own?

Whether you are a family member, a friend, or someone who works in business, it is important to have the confidence to open up the conversation.

A conversation can change a life

We often notice changes in the people around us but can be hesitant to start a conversation out of fear of causing offence or making things worse.

Some small business owners can get very focussed on what is going on at work and can lose sight of what is going on for them personally. Having other people notice changes and act on them can be the first step to getting them the help they need.

It is best not to assume that the person has noticed the changes in themselves or that someone else has asked the question, ‘Are you okay?’ A simple conversation could be the one to change their life and identify any issues they are having.

Start the conversation

There is no right or wrong way to begin a conversation, the main thing is to let the person know what you have noticed and know that you care. 

For example:

  • ‘I have noticed that you don’t seem yourself lately and I was wondering if you are okay?’
  • ‘I know you have been going through a tough time with the business, and I am wondering how you are coping personally?’

If the person doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, encourage them to discuss how they are feeling with someone else that they trust.

Listen without trying to fix the problem

The most important thing is to give the person an opportunity to talk. Your role is to listen to what they have to say without jumping in or trying to solve the problem.

It is not up to you to find solutions for them, but rather to be someone they can talk to about what is going on. Just being there for a person can be a huge relief.

Help them take the next step

It is important to encourage the individual to take action. This might include:

  • Asking them who else they feel comfortable telling so that there are more people who know what is going on
  • Encouraging them to make an appointment with their GP
  • Getting them to complete a mental health check-up online so they can get some feedback on how they are tracking
  • Providing immediate support if it’s needed by calling a helpline.

Check back in with the person

It is important to follow-up with the person again in the short-term after having a conversation, either the next day or in a few days. Put a note in your diary as a reminder to check-in regularly.

What doesn’t help

There are some things that will not be helpful in this situation. Try to avoid:

  • Telling them to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get over it’
  • Being over-protective or trying to fix their problems
  • Asking the person to put on a ‘brave face’ for others
  • Dismissing the person’s feelings by telling them that ’things aren’t that bad’ or ‘you’ll feel better tomorrow’
  • Asking them for a reason why they feel the way they do, sometimes the reason is unknown or there is no single reason.

What if they don’t want to talk or don’t want help?

If they don’t want to talk to you, just leave the door open for a conversation at another time. You may need to have a few tries to open a conversation. Being consistent can show you care.

If the person says they don’t want any help, you might want to ask if there is a specific reason why they do not want to talk to someone else. They may be based on past experiences or mistaken beliefs about what might happen to their business.

It is important to respect the person’s right not to seek help unless you believe they are at risk of harming themselves or others.

What if I am concerned that they are thinking about suicide?

It is important to take suicidal thoughts and behaviours seriously. It can help to know a bit more about suicide and some of the warning signs to look for.

The most important thing to do if you are worried about someone, is to ask them directly, ’Are you thinking about suicide?’

While it can be a hard question to ask, it is important to ask directly and then listen to the answer. You are unlikely to make the situation worse by asking the question, but it will allow the person to tell you about their thoughts.

Make sure the person is safe for now and support them to take action by making an appointment, calling a crisis service or telling someone else.

This story is sponsored by Ahead for Business. 2020 has been one of the most stressful years on record for business owners, their managers, employees and families. If you or someone close to you is experiencing challenging emotions, please visit aheadforbusiness.org.au The site contains practical strategies and tools to assist people to regulate their feelings, and also provides access to a range of mental health resources.

Ahead for Business is an initiative of Everymind and funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

If you are in need of support for your mental health, services are available 24/7:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

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