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Do’s & Don’ts of Mental Health Conversation

Helpful language tools and guidance for discussing mental health concerns with youth.
Part of the Well Beings Mental Health Language Guide.

Artwork from the Well Beings Mental Health Language Guide Web. Artwork by Kevin “Earleybird” Earley
Artwork by Kevin “Earleybird” Earley

The purpose of this guide is to address stigma around mental illness and equip users with person-first language tools for discussing mental health concerns with youth. To operationalize the term, we define youth as ages 14-22 years old. In creating this guide, we hope to empower all individuals, regardless of their experience, to have meaningful conversations with young people about their mental health and lived experiences. Through these conversations, we may save lives.

Adults may need additional help to reach youth where they are. Below are tips for conversing with youth about their mental health. These may help to begin meaningful dialogue.

Do

Don’t

Ask open-ended questions to give the young person a chance to share complete thoughts.


“How are you?“How does this make you feel?” “What are you feeling right now?”

Dismiss mentions of uneasiness or sadness.

“You’ll be ok” “This happened to me and I turned out fine!” “Calm down”

Listen intently to their feelings and ensure that they know their feelings are valid. Ask for clarity when necessary.

“You have every right to feel these feelings” “Why did that make you feel that way?”

Invalidate the feelings they share with you.

“What do you have to be sad about?” “You’re too young to be depressed”

Have the conversation in a comfortable, one-on-one setting (e.g., In a private room, in the car, while having a meal, outdoors while completing a physical activity together, etc.)

Attempt to have a personal conversation in a space that is not conducive to privacy (e.g., at the family dinner table, in the middle of the classroom, etc.)

Be encouraging and offer unwavering support while they are on their journey.

“How can I support you?” “What do you need?”

Say that “everything is going to be alright”, we cannot guarantee after we are done that things will get better, it takes time and effort to really recover from a mental illness.

Share lived experiences, when relevant. Finding common ground can help the young person to open up.

Don’t offer specific solutions to issues, what worked for you might not work for this youth. We want to leave the solutions to the mental health professionals.

Ensure that you are creating a safe space by setting honest expectations for interaction.

Don’t make promises to keep something a secret. Secrets can build trust, but we have to be careful, as an adult you can keep information private, which is only sharing it with people who need to know. The mental health professionals have confidentiality and we can encourage youth to share private things with them.

WellBeings.org is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.