Supporting a colleague through a mental health crisis

06.06.17

It’s not always easy to know the best way to support a colleague going through a mental health crisis. With one in five Australians affected by a mental health condition every year, it’s more important than ever that we learn these support skills.

The fear of saying or doing the wrong thing is a common concern, and this can mean we sometimes don’t act when we see a colleague struggling. However, it’s usually more harmful to ignore these concerns. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation when you are worried about a team member. Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose a mental health problem, but you can offer valuable support to a person by listening and talking to them. Here are some points to consider if you are concerned about a colleague.

Notice changes

Sometimes, a colleague may openly tell you about their mental health crisis or the challenges they are experiencing. Other times, you may notice changes which may indicate they are struggling with their mental health. These include:

  • Changes in behaviour, mood, or how they interact with colleagues
  • Changes in their work performance, motivation levels and focus
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Struggling to make decisions and find solutions to problems
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn, and losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Changes in eating habits, appetite, and increased smoking and drinking.

Planning the conversation

When you’re preparing to approach someone, it can be helpful to:

  • Find out what help is available within your workplace – if you work in a larger organisation, check if there is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Consider who should be having the conversation – are you the best person or would another workmate be more suitable?
  • Think about the most appropriate time and place – find somewhere private where the person will feel comfortable.

Start a conversation

Raise the topic in a way that feels comfortable to you. There is no right or wrong way to say you’re concerned – the main thing is to be thoughtful and genuine. Ask your colleague some open questions, like “I’ve noticed that you haven’t seemed yourself lately, is everything OK?”.  Above all, listen to their responses with empathy, and without judgement.  Don’t be disheartened if they don’t want to talk about it yet. By starting the conversation, you’ve let them know that ‘I notice and I care’ and that you’re there to listen when they feel ready to talk.

Direct them to help

There are many pathways available to help and support those experiencing mental health challenges, so it’s important to help your colleague explore their options for feeling better. An important first step is encouraging your colleague to contact a GP or healthcare professional about how they have been feeling.  They can provide an accurate diagnosis, referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist, and set up a personalised mental health care plan. Focus on the benefits of seeing a doctor, but also let them know that it may take time to find the right person, and that is normal.

Keep it confidential (unless they are at risk of harm)

Assume that any conversation you have about a colleague’s mental health is confidential. However, if you are a concerned that they may harm themselves, contact a local mental health crisis service or call:

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

If the person’s life is in immediate danger, call triple zero (000) and remain with them until help arrives.

Follow-up

It’s a good idea to follow up on any conversation you’ve had with a colleague about their mental health. Check in with the person in a week or so – ask them how they are feeling and let them know you are still there for them and you are ready to help. Just by showing support and offering to talk, you can make a difference to a person in need.

A conversation can help someone feel less alone and more supported in recovering from a mental health problem. Don’t underestimate the importance of just ‘being there’. Over half of the people experiencing a mental health problem don’t seek help, and your encouragement can help a person take the first step towards feeling better.

Sources:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australia’s Health 2014. 2014; AIHW, Canberra.

Beyond Blue. Talking to someone you are worried about [Online, accessed May 2017] Available from: www.beyondblue.org.au

Black Dog Institute. Workplace Mental Health Toolkit [Online] 2017 [Accessed May 2017] Available from: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

Heads Up. Having a conversation [Online, accessed May 2017] Available from: www.headsup.org.au

Mind. How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem [Online, accessed May 2017] Available from: www.mind.org.uk

SANE Australia. Mental illness factsheet [Online, accessed May 2017] Available from: www.sane.org

State Government of Victoria, Better Health Channel. Colleagues, employees and mental health in the workplace [Online, last updated Sep 2015] Available