How often has someone asked you “how are you?” and you’ve awkwardly responded “thanks, you?”. It goes to show how frequently we use questions like “how are you?” and “how’s it going?” as greetings rather than actual questions. We are not in the habit of truly listening to the answer. We ask the question as a social obligation, eager to move on to the next interaction. We live in an automated, high speed world and we are losing touch with the art of checking in with each other in a way that is meaningful. Part of it is that we struggle with the language to do so. We struggle to find the words for open, candid and non-judgemental conversation about our mental health. When asked how we are, we give perfunctory and socially acceptable responses because what we believe to be oversharing is considered awkward and uncomfortable. That’s because being honest about struggles, challenges and emotions is considered oversharing.
These social norms have to change and we need to make mental health an acceptable topic of conversation. We need to find the language to be honest when someone checks in, to speak about our emotions and to ask for support when it is needed. When we ask someone how they are, we need to mean it. We need to listen to the answer. We need to also call each other out when we aren’t being honest. Part of that is asking questions and “how are you?” isn’t going to cut it.
Here are some alternatives for checking in with someone that are a little bit different and may lead to more meaningful conversations:
1. “What feeling are you feeling most these days?”
2. Check in to make sure they are on top of their basic needs; food, sleep, physical activity, medication if needed.
3. “What goals are you working on?”
4. “If you could change one thing in your life right now, what would it be?”
5. Express to them that you are safe and non-judgemental space for them to share.
6. “How have you been sleeping?”
7. “Who was the last person you expressed your feelings to and what did you share?”
8. “What feeling do you wish you could feel more of?”
9. “What gets you most excited these days?”
10. “What coping mechanisms have you been using when things get tough?”
There are a million possibilities and these options are just the beginning. Questions like these can open up a conversation to more emotional and more honest responses. They can delve a little deeper into what someone is experiencing. Another way to help someone open up about their mental health is to be honest about our own. Many people will follow our lead and take a cue from our candour. When they hear us sharing things that may be more vulnerable or more difficult, they are more likely to do the same.
This is hard work but it is work we must do together. We have to make an effort in both roles; as the speaker and as the listener. I speak much more on this in my TEDx talk, below.
In this talk, I discuss the need to change social norms and to do away with the expectation that we should not discuss mental health. I focus mainly on the stigma surrounding suicide but the concept is transferable. We need to break those barriers and break down stigma so that everyone can feel safe asking for the support they need in every facet of mental health.
It’s not easy. Being honest and vulnerable is difficult. However, the more we do it, the easier it will become. Next time you encounter someone and are about to reach for your usual greeting, try checking in like you mean it instead. Ask a genuine question, listen to the answer, offer empathy and compassion, ask follow up questions. You will be surprised how much people need to share it they are given the opportunity and the safe space to do so.