Mental health issues can be challenging to all of us.
During this Mental Health Week, we are encouraged to be open and talk about mental health issues yet, perhaps, the missing side of the coin is that we need to learn to listen to the people who are speaking to us.
I am sure you can all think of a time when you were getting increasingly frustrated as you tried to explain something to someone and it was quite clear that they were not listening to you properly. Just imagine if you are suffering from mental health issues and no matter how much you talk the other person just does not seem to be really hearing you.
Here are a few tips that can make us better listeners;
Not all mental health issues are the same.
Think about physical health issues. You would not try to heal a cold by putting a plaster on your nose nor treat a minor cut with a sinus spray, would you?
Just as physical health problems differ so do mental health ones. Anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder etc are all different (and within each of those there are differences). It is very easy to lump all mental health issues into one label because it is not something we can see as easily as a physical health problem.
The only way we can really understand what an individual is going through is to listen carefully to what they are saying and the problems, symptoms and feelings they are describing.
Suspend Your Judgement
We humans tend to be self-centred. And if someone is talking to us, about any subject, we often judge what is being said against how it impacts on us individually. Even the most sympathetic listener can have this tendency, for example someone might listen intently to a co-worker about their personal issues yet still, somewhere, in the back of the mind is a little voice saying “is this going to affect my workload?”
Stopping that completely is near impossible, which is why talking to strangers, such as therapists, is often more productive.
However, we can be more mindful of our own reactions to what is being said to us and we can suspend our judgement, while we are being talked to, and reflect on our own feelings at a different time.
It is often difficult, especially to start with, for someone suffering from mental health issues to fully be able to find the words to describe how they are feeling. Added to this can be a sense of guilt, shame or failure that they are unable to cope at the moment.
Give people space to express themselves and encouragement to carry on talking.
The more you do this the better they will feel about speaking and the better they will be able to articulate how they are feeling.
Don’t Be Pushy
“well you need to do this” or “you need to do that” is, perhaps, the last thing people expressing their mental health issues want at that particular time.
The first thing they need is to know that they are being listened to and that, in itself, is a start to overcoming the problem. By showing you are willing just to sit and listen you do far more good.
Obviously give advice if they ask for it but if they do not, take the opportunity to ask them what they think their next step should be, allow them to come up with their own solutions before suggesting your own.
If someone has taken the daunting step of opening up to us about their mental health issues it is because they trust us. Therefore, it is only right that we should respect that trust and make sure we go back to them regularly to find out how they are feeling and listen again if they feel they need to talk more.
Knowing that there is someone prepared to come back to listen to you is powerfully therapeutic, it helps people know they are not alone in dealing with their problems, the more we can talk about mental health issues the better the chances of getting better sooner.
Talking about mental health issues is important but all the talking in the world is useless unless someone is actually listening.
So let’s all take the opportunity to really help tackle mental health issues by becoming good listeners.