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World Mental Health Day: campaigner Natasha Devon MBE's six tips

Natasha Devon
Natasha Devon
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With this year's World Mental Health Day centring around young people, Mental Health First Aid England have come up with six tips for talking to young people about their mental health.

Drawing from a new, free-to-access #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit released to support young people aged eight to 24, Mental Health First Aid England have worked with mental health campaigner and writer Natasha Devon MBE on tips on how to be more aware of the mental health struggles and how to navigate these conversations, particularly with young people.

From academic pressures to new technologies and social media, mental health pressures are universal for young people in 2018, with Mental Health First Aid England taking the chance on this World Mental Health Day to make sure that we are all having these conversations and feel comfortable doing so.

A Youth Mental Health First Aider herself, Natasha is also a Youth MHFA instructor for MHFA England, and is currently campaigning for all workplaces and colleges to make provision for Mental Health First Aid, while her book, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z’, is out now. Her six tips are as follows:

1) Choose the right environment

The right setting is important and will differ depending on the personality of the young person. Some find a quiet, calm space with lots of eye contact essential to connect during conversation, others find it too intense. There’s a lot of evidence to show ‘shoulder to shoulder’ communication - doing something like walking or driving alongside talking - can encourage people to open up as there’s a distracting activity to make it less awkward. Whatever the environment, ensure you have time to commit to the conversation.

2) Gauge the amount of knowledge in the room

Improvements to mental health education, as well as the wealth of information which can be found on the internet, often means young people know more about the topic than you might suspect. Whilst young people tend to have a vast breadth of knowledge on mental health, they can lack depth of understanding – and that’s where you can come in. See yourself as someone who is colouring in the lines they’ve already drawn (as well as, of course, erasing any errors in the form of misinformation and unhelpful stereotypes).

3) Don’t ‘freak out’!

I hear all the time from the young people I work with ‘I can’t tell my Mum/Dad, they’ll freak out’. Your first job is to assuage that fear. It is tremendously hard for a parent to hear that their child is suffering, and you have every right to feel your own emotions about that but try to put in a box marked ‘deal with later’. When a young person is opening up to you, show them in your language and tone that you are genuinely interested, aren’t judging them and will remain calm.

4) Ask open questions

Words, particularly when they relate to mental health, can be subject to a huge amount of interpretation. Don’t assume the way they use the word ‘anxious’ is the same as how you would. As questions such as ‘what does that feel like?’, ‘how long have you felt like this?’ and ‘do you have any idea why’? In this way, you not only allow yourself to gauge where they are coming from, you demonstrate the interest and lack of judgment which is so crucial.

5) Don’t try to ‘solve’ it

You could be the most singularly gifted psychotherapist the world has ever seen and you still wouldn’t be able to practice on your friends and family. It’s a conflict of interest. As frustrating as it might be to not be able to ‘fix’ it for them, you still have a crucial role to play. When we the tell people we love about our problems we generally aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking for empathy. Research has shown that making a person feel understood and valued raises their self-esteem, which in turn improves their brain chemistry. Just by having the conversation, you have helped.

6) Learn Together

It’s okay if you’re not an expert on mental health. In fact, if there are issues affecting your loved ones you wish you knew more about, it’s a great opportunity for you to go on a learning curve together. Remember, we *all* have mental health, in just the same way as we all have a status of physical health – so it’s really important young people understand that, and feel comfortable discussing it.