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It's always good to talk – but we also need to listen

Opinion by Marco Ricci

When it comes to talking about mental health, it isn't enough to simply hear the words someone is saying. We need to try to understand the meaning behind them to provide valuable support.

"It just seems like attention seeking."

That was a sentence recently spoken by someone who I greatly respect during a conversation we were having about a friend's recollection of their struggles with suicidal ideation. This is someone I have known for years and, if asked to describe them, I would categorise as a kind and tolerant person. This criticism of theirs of a person's honesty about something that has claimed so many lives therefore felt very out of character.

If I'm honest though, it was just another example to add to my long list of 'times a person I know has responded negatively to someone sharing their emotions.' It was a moment that personifies the approach that I believe many people still have toward mental health conversation: it can happen, but only in a certain way. If it veers into uncomfortable territory – either through the type of content being discussed, or by clashing with the listener's own personal beliefs – then the listener shuts off and stops participating in the conversation.

It's an approach that flies in the face of efforts made to get people to open up about their mental health. Events like Time to Talk day, which is centred around talking about our thoughts and feelings, is attempting to break down the stigmas that prevent people from opening up because of just how difficult it is to do. It is an event that offers us all a chance to challenge the unwritten social norms that prevent us from talking about mental health in a truly honest fashion, and to practice communicating both how we feel and how we might be able to assist someone else.

Hampering progress

But these efforts to encourage mental health conversation quickly become irrelevant if we aren't willing to listen. Not just because it prevents a lack of progress toward a society that is more accepting of people experiencing mental health issues, but also because it can actually cause the opposite effect.

Just imagine for a moment that you are experiencing thoughts that you never imagined could ever cross your mind. Social stigmas dictate that having these thoughts is bad, and that they can only ever be shared with a professional. But waiting lists for professional support are long or too expensive and you need to share your feelings with someone now. If you were to resort to talking to a friend or loved one who didn't want to listen or engage with the conversation, how would you be affected?

For many, this kind of scenario would result in them closing off from others, to them bottling up how they're feeling until professional help becomes available. At which point, their emotions may have already caused irreparable damage to their livelihoods.

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Be an active listener

I'm not suggesting I know the perfect approach to talking about mental health. By its very nature, it is an incredibly personal topic that often requires a different approach for different people. But what I do think is an important element to any mental health conversation is to be an active listener.

There are many active listening techniques we can make use of when talking about mental health in order to ensure our dialogue is productive and helpful. Some tips include:

  • Pay attention – your sole focus should be on the person talking, so make sure any distractions (like your phone, the TV) are out of sight

  • Show that you are listening – engage the talker with eye contact and provide frequent, short reminders that you are listening (phrases like 'I see' or 'I understand')

  • Ask open-ended questions that are specific to the scenario – this will help the talker realise that you want to listen as you are opening to door for them to provide more detail. Open-ended questions may also help the talker come to their own conclusions, without feeling like they are being led

  • Clarify and summarise – be certain you understand what the talker is saying by paraphrasing what they have already said and relaying it back to them. This ensures that both parties in the conversation understand what is being talked about, and gives you a firmer understanding of how to respond

  • Try not to judge – like the example I gave at the beginning of this article, it can be easy for us to allow our own opinions and perspectives to cloud the conversation. But ensuring we refrain from judging someone's thoughts and feelings is essential in helping them feel that they are being supported

There are many other methods to actively listen, all with the key aim to go further than just hearing what someone says to comprehending what they mean.

Take the time to talk and to listen

Sometimes talking about mental health is like softly pulling at a single thread to gradually untangle a complex knot of issues that are just beneath the surface. It can be a long and time-consuming process to truly comprehend a person's thoughts and provide them with valuable support.

Time to Talk Day provides a perfect opportunity for us to practice doing just that, and to nurture a more empathetic approach to mental health dialogue. It provides us with the chance to trial ways of examining the surface-level simplicity of ours and others' thoughts and emotions, and dive deeper into just what it is that is truly bothering us or the people we know.

But let's not limit our efforts to just today. Let's change the mental health conversation that occurs in our day-to-day lives, and build a society where actively listening becomes the norm.


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