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What do you say to someone who’s putting on a brave face?

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We’ve all experienced life’s challenges. We’ve all had times when we haven't felt like our usual selves. We’ve also all probably seen someone we care about not acting like their normal selves. In fact, in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental illness. And, by the time Canadians reach the age of 40, 1 in 2 have, or have had, a mental health condition. So, if we all go through challenges and changes in our mental health, why does it feel so difficult to talk about?

There are many reasons why we put on a brave face - a brave face being a ‘mask’ that we use to hide how we’re feeling on the inside. We live in a society that tells us courage and strength mean not showing or sharing our struggles. Also, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of shame and stigma around the topic of mental health. On top of that, many of us struggle to make sense of, and let alone, explain our complex emotions and inner worlds to others. We may also feel that we’re burdening others, fear receiving pity and judgement, or think that ‘faking it’ is the fastest way to feel like ourselves again. But the reality is that a ‘brave face’ doesn’t help us feel better. It stops us from processing our feelings, limits our ability to connect with others, and makes it hard to get support from those around us. So, what should you say to someone who is putting on a brave face?

Consider the when and where
Pick a time and place they’ll feel comfortable with and where you can talk without distractions. Go for a walk after work, catch up for a coffee on the weekend or do an activity together that you normally do, like golf, hiking, or shopping. Having an activity to focus on (where you can also engage in conversation) might take some of the pressure off them.

Stick to the facts
Don’t go off assumptions or rumors that you’ve heard from others. Be specific about the concrete behavioural changes you’ve noticed yourself. E.g., “I saw you crying after dinner last night, is there anything you want to talk about?" Or, “you seem stressed lately. I noticed you’ve been working long hours and haven’t been going out much, how are you feeling?”

Use curiousity 
Come from a place of curiosity, rather than judgement or fear. Genuine curiosity allows us to stay open, neutral and operate from a place of compassion. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Try not to make assumptions or diagnoses and keep your language neutral. E.g., “I’ve been thinking about you lately, and I’ve been wondering how you’ve been feeling.” Or, “I’m curious, how have things been since the big move?”

Normalize, normalize, normalize 
Normalizing helps people open up and reduces the shame and stigma they’re experiencing. Let them know their emotions are valid and normal, and that they’re not alone in what they’re going through. E.g., “It’s totally understandable that you’re feeling disappointed and lost after getting laid off.” Or, “this pandemic has been such a hard time emotionally, and a lot of people are feeling stressed, anxious, and scared.”

Follow their lead
Opening up is tough, so let the conversation unfold at a pace that feels comfortable for them. Don’t push them to share anything that they’re not ready to talk about. Let them know you admire their courage and vulnerability in sharing what they’ve told you and that you’ll be there if/when they’d like to share more. This gives them a sense of empowerment and lets them know you’re a safe person to come back to in the future.

Use 'we' language 
Use the word ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ if you’re talking about next steps or trying to problem-solve. The word ‘we’ implies a partnership and that you’re in their corner. E.g., “We’re going to make sure you get through this.” Or, “we will need to make some calls, but we’ll find you a counsellor who is a good fit.”

Ask how you can support 
Literally. Asking someone “how can I support you?” is one of the most powerful questions. We all need different things at different times, and we’re not supposed to intuitively know how to support someone – we learn how by asking this question. Sometimes, people may need a shoulder to cry on, while, at other times, they may want a distraction to take their mind off things.

Offer resources
Depending on your relationship, you might want to offer to accompany them to their next doctor’s appointment or to sit with them while they have a hard conversation with a loved one. Let them know that there are professional supports out there and that you can help them get connected to whatever they may need.

Lastly, remember that if you’re reading this article, it’s because you genuinely care. People can feel when we’re coming from a place of genuine care. So, if the conversation doesn’t go as you hoped, be rest assured that this care still helped them feel seen, heard and supported. This care may also be the reason they come back to you and open up to you when they’re ready to do so.

If you're struggling, MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your program.


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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.