Mental illness is a lot more common than you may think — nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness. This means that it’s more likely than not, especially if you work at a large company, that at least one of your colleagues lives with a mental health condition.

Work is one of the biggest and most important areas of our lives. If your colleague lives with a mental illness, then symptoms might show up at work. They could also disclose their mental illness to you if you have a positive relationship. The way you react to them could make a huge difference in their life.

If you suspect, or know, that someone you work with has a mental illness, there are so many things you can do to support them.

Here are 6 ways that you can support a colleague living with mental illness.

1. Be open to the conversation

It can be a tricky situation to navigate if you suspect a colleague needs mental health support, but they don’t directly talk to you about it. You might not know if you should be the one to bring it up, or if you should wait for them to come to you.

In general, you can show that you’re open to having this conversation with them. This could mean expressing your views about mental health and your hope to increase awareness about it in the workplace. It may also mean bringing up your own mental health issues if you feel comfortable doing so.

You can also ask your colleague how they’re feeling. If you’ve noticed symptoms at work, you could gently let them know that you’re there to support them if they’re going through anything.

If your colleague denies that anything is wrong or avoids talking about it, there may not be much you can do. Continue leaving the door open for if and when they ever do feel ready.

2. Respect confidentiality

If a colleague confides in you about their mental illness, then assume that this information should be kept confidential — even if they don’t explicitly tell you so.

Although we’ve come a long way in terms of mental health stigma, it should be your colleague’s choice — and theirs alone — to decide whether they want others at your workplace to know about their mental illness.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and that’s if you have a legitimate reason to believe that your colleague could be a danger to themselves or others. For example, if they’ve expressed to you that they want to hurt themselves or others at work, then you may need to let your manager or human resources department know.

3. Don’t label

Every person deserves the right to define their mental illness in their own way. If your colleague hasn’t specifically told you what their mental health diagnosis is, then avoid using any terms that refer to any diagnoses or labels.

For example, if your colleague has told you that they’ve been feeling low energy and sad, but haven’t used the word “depressed,” then you shouldn’t use that term, either. Focus on how they’ve told you they’re feeling, not on diagnoses or labels.

Other labels should be avoided altogether because they can be taken as offensive. Some of these labels include terms like “addict” or “alcoholic.” You should also make sure you’re using any mental health terms correctly. For example, if your colleague has told you that they have a psychotic disorder, do not refer to them as a “psychopath” — these are not the same thing.

4. Be understanding

Many people with mental illness show no signs of it at work. For others, keeping up with their regular work routine may start to become difficult when their symptoms are flaring up. You might notice that your colleague’s mental illness has begun to affect their work performance.

Be understanding of this. Focus on doing your own work, and supporting your colleague when you can. Try to be patient — your colleague’s mental health isn’t their choice.

5. Practice active listening

Active listening is a communication style that can help you to convey empathy and understanding. One of the key components of active listening is using reflections. Instead of giving your own thoughts or advice, allow your colleague to express how they feel — then reflect this back to them to communicate understanding.

For example, let’s say your colleague tells you, “I’ve been feeling so blah lately and I don’t know why.” Avoid giving unsolicited advice, like “You should go to the doctor. It could be a physical thing or it could be depression.” Instead, reflect: “It sounds like you’re feeling really low. What else are you feeling?”

Open questions like this one can invite your colleague to elaborate more on their experience.

Another important piece of active listening is non-verbal communication. Face the person as they’re talking to you. Turn away from any distractions like your email. Really focus on what your colleague is saying, instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next.

6. Encourage them to get support

If your colleague isn’t already connected to mental health support, then helping them find a specialist may be one of the most important ways that you can help them. If they’re ready to get help, work with them to look through your workplace insurance plan’s mental health provider directory. Going through insurance is one of the most affordable ways to get mental health treatment.

Your workplace may also have other mental health benefits, like an Employee Assistance Program, that can help your colleague.

Lastly, consider talking to your colleague about seeking support from supervisors or human resources. Again, this is their decision and their decision alone. But it may be a good idea to remind them that they won’t be eligible for accommodations or legal protections if your employer isn’t aware that they live with a mental illness.

To Your Wellbeing

– The MINES Team