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

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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, your first attempts at deeper listening might be shaky, and stumbling happens, but 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.

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