Let’s Talk Mental Health… and Let’s Also Listen



In the wake of Blue Monday on January 15th, Hi, How Are You? Day on the 22nd, and the #BellLetsTalk campaign on the 30th, I have been thinking about how to engage more deeply in our mental health conversation this month, and throughout the rest of the year.

I try to ask questions that open up the conversation further like “How are you?…Really?“How did _____ make you feel?” “Are you talking to someone regularly?” I also make a point of talking about and embracing the full spectrum of mental health care, from “safer” topics of everyday self-care, to acknowledging how immensely frightening suicidal thoughts or full-blown psychosis can feel. (I know, I’ve been there).

Talking with courage and embracing vulnerability by sharing openly is an important first step, but a way to engage more, is to actually listen to each other. When we talk about mental health and mental health conditions, what is shared also needs to be heard, acknowledged, believed, and accepted. We need to listen harder.

The times I felt truly, deeply listened to are unforgettable. My first experience of having someone hold space for me (with a therapist at age 15) left me floored. I felt valid, and like something inside me had actually healed. Having my reality denied and not being heard was so ingrained that most of the time I didn’t even realize what was happening. I just knew I felt worse, and even more confused.

So what was the difference between when I felt heard and when I didn’t? What happened when I shared my experience with someone and left feeling better than before? And what was actually happening when I wasn’t heard, when l felt like I had disappeared, and that my concern, whether seemingly mundane or a full-blown crisis, was never addressed and left me feeling like something was wrong with me? (As if I were “crazy”).

Many of us grew up around non-listening and non-empathy, and naturally still do not know how to listen deeply to others in a way that makes them feel heard. We were immersed in a culture that did not acknowledge feelings and needs, let alone talking openly about mental health. Non-listening, shutting down, shaming, and minimizing were so common that many of us grew up denying our own reality, and naturally others’, too.

It was only when I experienced having space held for me that I learned how I needed to be heard, and eventually I learned how to share deeper listening with others.

How many times have you tried to share your experience with someone, and were met with a quick, defensive quip that didn’t acknowledge your experience but instead hijacked it? Something like “That happened to ME…” Or, how about a topic-changing (avoiding) “Well, at least it’s sunny out!” Or a nice one-upping: “I only get two hours a night and I have three kids!” (Um, so I guess we’re talking about you now?)

Responses like this, though incredibly common (even among other sufferers of mental health conditions), actually leave a person still feeling isolated, unheard, and not much better than before. We have all experienced it, and we’ve all done it. How could we not? They are a part of the “suck it up and get over it” culture that was modeled for us, and for our parents and grandparents before us. But we can catch ourselves, and choose a different response when others share their story. We can choose to listen more deeply, by listening actively.

When someone shares their experience with you, pause and hold space for them. It helps to repeat back internally what was just shared with you. “What I just heard, was that Jill is having a hard time lately due to…” You can even repeat back to them what they shared with you, or type it back to them if it’s over text or social media: “Oh, wow, you have really been having a hard time lately due to…”

Follow up with empathy by imagining how that must feel for the other person, and then tell them. Imagine how they are feeling and really step into their shoes. Pretend it happened to you. “I can only imagine how hard that must be, especially considering….”

Listening actively and giving empathy might not come naturally, but the great news is that it can be practiced:

  • Pause consciously before replying. Really take in what they have shared.
  • Repeat what was shared back to yourself, internally and then out loud, to hear them fully, and make them feel heard. “I’m hearing/It sounds like that work is overwhelming for you right now.”
  • Actively listen, by following up with a reply that acknowledges what they are going through, and step into their shoes. “It must be extra tough right now, considering _____”
  • Accept their experience radically. That means accepting their experience with non-judgment, even if you disagree or wish to make it better for them. If you have had a similar or different experience, honour that someone is sharing theirs right now. Their experience is valid, no matter what. You can share yours after you have truly heard them.
  • Even a simple, empathic nodding in acknowledgement with “mmm” or “wow…” can go a long way to helping the other feel heard. It shows you are right there with them.
  • Catch yourself, and try again. If you unconsciously launch in with an automatic, quippy, non-listening “Oh, well, I only slept two hours” or the like, pause, and acknowledge it, and turn it back around to focus on them: “Sorry, what I meant to say was, wow, it must be really hard for you right now. That sounds really frustrating.” Acknowledge what they are going through, and guess how they might be feeling. After really hearing them, then, you can offer more.
  • After you have truly heard them and responded with empathy, then you can engage more by asking questions, or gently sharing your similar experience “I can certainly relate to how you are feeling, especially when _____ happened to me.”

Like any new skill, our first attempts at deeper listening might be shaky, and stumbling happens, but we can keep practicing. Try to remember if anyone has ever listened that deeply to you, and what it felt like. Did you feel relief? Could you feel yourself exhale, and feel a new sense of hope and possibility… like you might actually get through the challenges you were facing?

When I first felt truly heard by someone, I felt as light and floaty as if I were a helium balloon. A weight came off my chest, but only when that weight was seen and acknowledged. I left with a sense that I could move forward with my next steps, and I want that feeling for everyone. I want it for my family, friends, colleagues, students and community.

We urgently need to talk about mental health, but let’s also give each other the gift of having our stories and experiences be truly heard, through the practice of deep, active listening with radical acceptance.

All rights reserved. Copyright Erika Nielsen @ Sound Mind 2020

Colds and Mental Health Conditions Have More In Common Than You Think

Not long ago, I was knocked down flat by an uber-virus that everyone seemed to be catching. In the throes of my throbbing raw throat, faucet nostrils, and heaving cough, I was comforted knowing that many others knew exactly what I was going through: a cold like this was the most normal thing in the world.

One colleague handed me cough lozenges without my asking. Another rushed to his knapsack and pulled out an essential oils vial, and rolled a halo of medicinal vapor around my neck and temples. Cancelling plans that week was easy, and I didn’t have to explain a thing. People understood colds. But as I kept noticing and reflecting on the comfort, I felt from this universal understanding and the simplicity and ease in explaining my illness, it all had me wondering about my mental health condition—my bipolar disorder.

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Big Travel: Crossing Major Time Zones With Bipolar

When I first told my psychiatrist about my plans to travel to Taiwan to perform in a new music theatre production, I thought she might be a little concerned but otherwise supportive. To my surprise, she instead advised that I scrap the idea, and not go at all! She then told me about another patient who, like me, managed well day-to-day with bipolar, and recently traveled to Thailand for a wedding. The trip did not go well. 

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Nope. The Weather is Not Bipolar: How To Educate Others in Finding Another Adjective

Everyday we hear mental illness terms being used in inappropriate and derogatory ways. Terms like schizo, manic, ADHD and of course, bipolar. I find it scary that these terms are used with zero sensitivity or regard for those of us living with a mental illness. I thought we had come farther than this.

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5 Ways My Freelance Career Supports My Mental Wellness

Although the following is written from the perspective of a self-employed freelance musician, I believe the issues addressed below provide useful insight for people who work in other fields, too.

A few years back I was reminded of the differences between working hard and overworking through a terrific video created by fellow cellist and freelancer, Emily Davidson. Continue reading

Minimalism for Mental Health Part One: Thirty Products I No Longer Buy

Updated November, 2020

There are many wonderful books and articles out there on the power of minimalism and its effect on your mental health and well-being. Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist describes it as “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.” Continue reading

Remembering to Say What You Need

Sometimes, when we are finally thriving, we occasionally forget about our mental health condition, and blissfully slip into what I call “pre-diagnosis mode.” While feeling “normal” is often what we yearn for, one problem can creep up: we can forget to manage our mental health condition. It can be easy to forget that remembering our unique healthcare needs, and stating our needs is extremely important, especially when we are feeling well. This post expands on my article 10 Travel Tips.

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Your Mania is Not Your Creativity

From my initial bipolar diagnosis to reaching a “new normal” two and a half years later, I have questioned and analyzed every single emotional state and thought process, as well as every experience and memory I have had throughout my entire life.

Since I have type I bipolar I am more prone to manic episodes than depression. A lot of my reflecting compares being stable on medication (boring!), versus the whirlwind of creativity I seem to have when I experience manic symptoms (fun!). Continue reading

10 Traveling Tips

Tomorrow I stuff my suitcase, cello, and myself into a six person carpool and drive for nine hours to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to perform with ELO tribute band Strange Magic.

Before my diagnosis in 2013, I could travel like a rock star. For example, I spent two years taking a weekly red-eye bus to work, which seemed just fine on paper, even a little badass. So was cramming several bandmates into one hotel room, or driving through the night in a snowstorm right after a show with a car full of bassoon players. Continue reading

A Life

“I don’t really remember what I did. I haven’t watched the videos that people took. I know it got bad. I was in a very severe manic state, which bordered on psychosis. Certainly delusional. I wasn’t clear what was going on. I was just trying to survive"~ Carrie Fisher

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