Leading Someone Through Mental Health Challenges

As leaders, it can feel overwhelming when people in the team are experiencing mental health challenges. We might feel the need to fix it, to do the right thing, and yet knowing what the right thing is can be tricky. In this blog we explore some useful skills required when leading someone through mental health challenges. These skills can be applied to enable meaningful and useful conversations that encourage the person to feel listened to and increase their sense of resourcefulness. 


I believe most people are very resourceful most of the time and there are only some occasions when this is not the case. That means I believe others have ideas and thoughts that will help them rather than me having to have all the answers. 

How do you go into conversations with others? By noticing our mindset, we can see how this might impact the quality of the conversation. For example, if you think you know best, know the answer, or see yourself as needing to fix others, then the conversation is going to be about you talking and doing the work rather than the other person coming up with their ideas. When someone is experiencing mental health challenges, this may mean that in the very moment they are not feeling equipped to deal with situations, that you endorse that lack of resourcefulness simply by your actions i.e. feeling the need to offer a solution for them. Whereas if you hold the silence and ask them in that moment for their ideas, they become more equipped. 

Question: How can you adopt a mindset that encourages the person to feel equipped?


If we can notice the assumptions we are making then we can challenge them. For example, the words “mental health” might bring a set of assumptions that you have about what this means and how to deal with it. Whereas these may just be one frame of reference, by challenging our assumptions we can stay open to other people’s perspectives of what they are experiencing. Another example is assuming that you know what the other person is feeling and what they need, based on your mental health or those around you. Mental health is unique at different moments of our lives, so staying open to wider perspectives can help. 

Qustion: What assumptions are you making about mental health? 


When was the last time you truly listened to the important words, body language and messages that someone is giving you in a conversation? When was the last time someone properly listened to you? Active listening is exactly what it means, it’s a pro-active choice to stop doing other things and sit with somebody else whilst they process out loud. When we are experiencing challenges, having a listening ear is so valuable as it is not about someone problem solving, instead, it is about sitting with someone whilst they notice how they are doing, without the need to fix it. Sometimes it is enough for us to be listened to for us to feel a bit better and more aware of our choices. 

Question: What could you do to be an even better listener?


 If we can genuinely be curious about the other person’s perspective, then we encourage new insights. Rather than going over information that the person already knows, I encourage you to use questions as your best friend in a conversation. Using open, future-forward questions that are in service of the person’s new thinking (rather than yours) is one of the best ways to encourage new awareness. 

Question: What questions could you use in your next conversation to encourage the person’s awareness?

Noticing and Partnership

A good conversation about mental health is a partnership. You will be noticing words, clues, and insights as well as the other person noticing. Sharing these insights with the other person in a way they can take or leave them can be helpful and can also be a powerful way to encourage new thoughts and insights. What is important is how we offer them, i.e. can we offer them from a neutral place rather than from an expert place? For example, by using the words “I noticed this . . . . “, “I wondered that . . .” or “What do you think. . . .” can give the other person the choice to build on what you have said or share another thought, rather than having to take your insight as the only solution. 

Question: What insights could you share lightly for the person to take or leave?

Question: How could you create a more equal partnerships in the conversation?

Exploring not Solving

We can make instant changes to our presence or stance, which signals to the other person they have space to think out loud. By our words, body language and our willingness to be vulnerable, we can encourage the other person to explore their situation, rather than telling them what to do. 

Question: How could you be an explorer rather than a fixer in conversations?

Warning Signals

There are times when we may feel another source of support is needed. I call these our warning signals. I operate in my mind a traffic light system, green being the person is displaying signs they are resourceful and able to manage themselves; amber being there is a potential lack of resourcefulness but not too deep to be concerned; and then the red zone where the person is not resourceful or able to manage themselves. In these circumstances, it is important to share this with the person, let them know you are concerned, and together you can work out what to do next.

The next steps may include other sources of support, for example, contacting their EAP schemes, doctor, or something else. Even when people are possibly in the red zone, you can still encourage a partnership by sharing with the person what you are noticing, concerned about and what additional support they think they might need. 

Question: What support do you have around yourself to be able to manage people with mental health challenges? 

You and Your Mental Health

We all have mental health and being aware of your own agency, and how you are doing is also crucial to be able to manage others. By creating reflection time as a leader, it creates moments to pause, and understand how you are doing and what you might need as well. 

Question: How is your mood and how would you describe it?

Question: What moments of reflection could be created more frequently?

Key points 

  • Move from fixer to explorer.
  • Stay curious.
  • Ask, using open questions.
  • Develop a mindset of “I believe others are resourceful unless they indicate otherwise”. 
  • Develop an open, curious presence. 
  • Make a proactive choice to listen actively. 
  • Understand the additional sources of support. 

In Summary

Brene Brown talks about empathy vs sympathy in her video, and I encourage us all to consider the presence we create in our conversations with others around mental health. This is a great starting point to opening up a more impactful, genuine and useful conversation that has the potential to make a difference to your team member. I’d love to hear how you get on and how you find the different approaches. If you would like support with mental health conversations get in touch to see how 1:1 leadership executive coaching sessions can support you.  


  • MHFA England have a wealth of resources including their acronym ALGEE as a way to structure a conversation around mental health. https://mhfaengland.org/

Leave a Comment