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Talking about mental health with your mentee

Unlike physical health challenges – like scrapes and cuts or the flu – mental illness often remains unseen. And because we can’t always see mental health challenges, it’s important that we feel comfortable having conversations about them.

Talking about mental health can be difficult and awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. Nor do you need to be an expert to engage in conversations about mental health. Just a few small words – like asking someone how they’re feeling – and taking the time to listen to the answer - can make a huge difference. Whether someone is ready to have that conversation with you or not, most people will appreciate your care and support in trying to start the conversation in the first place.

If you’re not exactly sure where to begin, here are a few helpful conversation starters to break the ice around a mentee’s mental health:

  1. “I'm thinking about you. How are you doing?” Ask the question and mean it. If you're talking in person, show you are listening by sitting alongside the person, maintaining an open body position and maintaining comfortable eye contact.If you do not live near them, consider asking if they want to FaceTime or do a google hangout.  
  2. "In the [first year of college/year after high school/before graduation], I sometimes felt . . . " Sharing your own struggles can show your mentee that they are not alone, and that you are willing to talk about difficult and emotional topics with them.
  3. “Do you want to take a walk?” Engaging your mentee in a healthy activity like taking a walk together can be a great way to start a conversation. Doing an activity while you talk can take some of the nerves and discomfort out of the conversation. 
  4. “Would you like to talk to me about how you're feeling? I'm worried about you." Not everyone will want to talk about their emotional life. But sharing your concern and asking if they want to talk about their emotions can be more of an invitation to talk than a more general question like "how are you?"
  5. “Have you been feeling depressed?" or "Are you thinking about suicide?” If you are concerned that someone is considering suicide, ask the question directly. Asking a person if they have been thinking about suicide or have made plans will not increase the risk that they will complete suicide.

No matter the path this conversation takes, be prepared to walk it with whomever you're reaching out to. Click here for more ideas about how to have the full conversation, listen, and support your mentee. 

Adapted from Mental Health First Aid tips.