Talking about mental health: frequently asked questions

Mandy Rutter, independent consultant, trainer, psychologist, and counsellor, continues her series for Fuel Oil News on the topic of mental health. Fuel Oil News is dedicated to opening up the conversation around mental health and sharing industry initiatives.

Talking about mental health: frequently asked questions

Mandy specialises in improving the psychological health of employees, managers, and senior leaders within all areas of the workforce. In this insight article for Fuel Oil News, Mandy answers the most frequently asked questions about mental health.  

Q1. What is mental health and why is it important?

Our mental health is about how we feel and think, it is a combination of our emotions and thoughts. Everyone has mental health.

When we are in good mental health, we can feel positive about ourselves, our families, and the work we do. But good mental health isn’t always about things going well. Often things happen in life which can feel overwhelming (bereavement, work stress, relationship conflict), but if we are in good mental health when these things happen, we are able to ask for help, think about options, and make decisions that are in the best interest of our physical and mental health.

Q2. How do I spot the signs of mental ill-health?

Spotting the signs of mental ill-health can be vital in providing timely support and intervention. Common signs that may indicate someone is struggling with their mental health may include:

• Changes in behaviours: If people are usually energetic and enthusiastic, you might notice they have become much quieter, and withdrawn. People who are patient and kind may become more irritable or agitated.

• Emotional changes: Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, or an overwhelming sense of guilt. Sudden and intense emotional reactions that are out of character for the individual.

• Difficulty concentrating: Reduced ability to focus, make decisions, or complete tasks. This may present as a decline in academic or work performance.

• Changes in sleep patterns: Disruptions in sleep, either sleeping too much or not being able to sleep. Persistent fatigue or a noticeable decline in energy levels.

• Appetite changes: Significant changes in appetite, leading to noticeable weight loss or gain.

• Physical symptoms: Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or other unexplained pains that do not have a clear medical cause.

• Isolation: Social withdrawal, avoiding friends, family, or usual activities. A person experiencing mental health challenges may isolate themselves due to feelings of shame or an inability to cope with social interactions.

• Substance abuse: Increased reliance on alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way to cope with emotional distress.

• Changes in personal hygiene: Neglecting personal hygiene, appearance, and overall self-care i.e., not showering/brushing hair/changing clothes/brushing teeth/cleaning uniform.

• Expressing suicidal or self-harming thoughts: Verbalising thoughts of self-harm or suicide or expressing a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness.

Q3. How does stress affect us mentally and physically?

The body’s stress response occurs when we have too many complicated demands placed upon us, and we feel unable to cope. When we perceive that we can’t cope, the body releases a number of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.

It is these hormones that cause a range of ‘stress’ responses, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. It’s important to remember that short term stress is essential for survival, it can make us run fast, work collaboratively and reach out for help. Some people even say that they work better under stress.

But chronic or prolonged stress causes damaging and dangerous responses often affecting our body, our mind and our behaviour.

Stress responses affecting our physical state include:

  • Increase heart rate, elevated blood pressure, heightened risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Compromised immune system leading to greater susceptibility to infections (coughs, colds, eye infections, skin infections, cold sores), and disrupt digestive functions, contributing to issues such as indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Muscle tension and hormonal imbalances may result in headaches, musculoskeletal pain, and disturbances in respiratory and endocrine systems.

Stress responses affecting our mental state include:

  • Difficulties in concentration, memory, and decision-making often affecting our ability to keep ourselves and others safe
  • Worrying and overthinking leading to anxiety
  • Sadness, low mood, irritability, lethargy often leading to depression.

Stress responses affecting our behaviour

  • Becoming withdrawn, isolated, silent, unable to ask for help or reach out to loved ones for support.
  • Argumentative, aggression, violence
  • Drinking more alcohol, gambling, drug taking
  • Self-harm and suicidal behaviour

Q4. What changes can I make to improve my mental health?

Improving our mental health isn’t difficult – small changes in a range of directions can have a big effect. It will often involve seeking support from friends, family and professionals, and adopting positive lifestyle changes. This can include the following:

Get good sleep: Prioritise and respect sleep by establishing a consistent sleep schedule and creating a healthy bedtime routine. This can include limiting screen time before bed, not eating too late, keeping the bedroom cool, dark and silent, relaxation exercises, using a weighted blanket, lavender spray – or whatever feels right for you.

Connect with others: Spending quality time with friends, family and people you love, sharing our feelings with someone, or engaging in acts of kindness can prevent loneliness and release endorphins to help us feel positive.

Regular exercise: Doing some physical activity every day is essential to release our stress hormone and increase our endorphins. If you can be outdoors, in nature, it has added benefits. A varied, nutritious, well-balanced diet full of multicoloured fruits and vegetables will also help you feel good.

Be in the present: Take time to be aware in the moment of how you feel, how you are coping, managing, or enjoying life. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to help us feel calmer and gain a better perspective. Mindfulness breathing can really help to manage a range of distractions and worries that negatively impact our mental health.

Do something for enjoy: Ask yourself what makes you happy, and actively work towards doing things that make you happy on a regular basis.  You might want to learn a new skill, join a new group, reconnect with old friends – whatever the activity, try putting time in your calendar for events and activities that can bring you joy, contribute to your personal fulfilment, boost self-esteem, and help you feel a sense of achievement.

There are a few things that it can be helpful to reduce if we want to improve our mental health, such as: smoking, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, screen time, over-working.

Q5. How do I talk about my mental health difficulties?

• Find a quiet, comfortable setting where you can talk without interruptions, ensuring plenty of time for an unrushed conversation.

• Share your feelings with a trusted individual, be it a close friend, family member, or mental health professional—someone understanding and supportive, willing to listen without judgment.

• Clearly explain what you are experiencing without blaming others if possible. Use “I” statements to communicate your feelings, thoughts, and experiences. For example, “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately” instead of “You make me stressed.”

• Use specific examples to illustrate your experiences. This can help the person understand the impact of your mental health difficulties on your daily life.

• Understand that not everyone may react the way you expect. Be prepared for various responses, including surprise, concern, or even misunderstanding.

• It can be helpful to write things down first, to help get your thoughts and emotions into a structure.

Q6. What could I say to someone who is feeling low?

Use empathic and supportive statements such as:

  • “I’m really sorry to hear that you’re feeling this way.”
  • “I can’t fully understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.”
  • “Is there anything specific that’s been bothering you that you want to talk about?
  • “You’re not alone in this. I’m here to support you.”

Encourage communication and share your concern:

  • “I’m here to listen. You don’t have to go through this alone.”
  • “Let me know if there’s anything you need or if you just want to talk.”
  • “I’ve noticed you seem down lately. Would you like to go for a coffee?
  • “I’m here for you, and I’m concerned about your well-being. Can we talk about how things are for you?”

Offer practical help or suggest professional support:

  • “Would you like to have a walk, or a break so that we can talk away from here?
  • “It sounds like you have a lot going on at the moment. I am here for you, but I want to ensure you have the right help to provide good advice and guidance. Shall we have a chat about talking to a professional, maybe a therapist or counsellor?
  • “Sometimes, speaking to a professional can provide valuable insights and support.”

Q7. How do we support men with mental health challenges?

Recognising and challenging the traditional expectations around masculinity is vital for promoting an atmosphere where men feel empowered to prioritise their mental health. Some of the ways to help overcome stigma and shame about talking about mental health include:

  • Asking senior men within organisations to tell their own stories of mental health challenges, can be helpful in encouraging positive role-modelling.

  • Publishing stories of men within the workplace reaching out for help and having a positive outcome, to help challenge the stigma of men asking for help.

  • Recruiting men within the organisation to be mental health champions so they can challenge stereotyping and encourage non-judgemental discussion.

  • Get creative with advertising services for men’s mental health. Examples in the past have included ‘The hairy arse builders guide to stress management!’

While the above are questions that Mandy hears frequently, please do get in touch with others that you’d like to see addressed. We will be continuing our conversations around the importance of good mental health in future issue since, as Mandy says: “It’s essential for all of us to proactively look after our mental health as it is the foundation of a good quality of life.

“There is no health without mental health.”