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Mental Health Support: Tips for Listening and Talking

An illustrated person walking alone through an ally with their shadow on the wall
An illustrated person walking alone through an ally with their shadow on the wall

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    The mental health epidemic is not going away anytime soon. With (or without) a mental illness diagnosis, it can be difficult to know when and how to talk about mental health with friends, family and colleagues. If you are someone who has mental ill-health, there may be levels of embarrassment or even shame associated with talking about it. Some cultures still see mental illness as a sign of weakness and so the idea of opening up is daunting.

    For those listening to someone opening up about being mentally unwell, they may not know how to respond or have a need to provide advice – but the person talking might just need someone who will listen, not advise.

    Mental health as a subject can be difficult for some to talk about. Kowing how to either start the conversation or respond to someone can feel like a daunting task to some.

    Taking steps to listen well

    One of the best ways that anyone can help, whether they are talking to a friend, family member, or a colleague, is by just being present when asked for assistance and only offering support without judgement if required. Focus on the person’s words because it’s important to understand what the person is actually saying.

    It can be easy to misinterpret the words that someone is communicating. An example of this might be if someone opens up about their struggles with depression, they may make a statement like “I just want to be alone” – this can be interpreted literally, in that this person wants to be left alone. However, it can also be a sign that they are opening up and are indirectly saying they are lonely.

    Paul C. stated that when they sometimes state “I just want to be alone”, their actual meaning is:

    “I push people away when I need them the most. I think I mostly just want someone to push me, that way I know they care and that I’m not just a burden. That they actually want to spend time with me.”

    Paul C.

    Good communication skills require a high level of self-awareness. Understanding your own personal style of communicating will go a long way toward helping you to create good and healthy relationships with others.

    Illustrated person listening to an audio conversation

    Listening doesn’t always mean to hear

    Body language can provide invaluable information when talking to someone about a sensitive subject. Be sure to take the time to watch, as you listen.

    Therapists recommend practising active listening when talking with someone about their mental wellbeing.

    Active and reflective listening

    You can improve your listening skills by practising “active listening”. This type of listening entails more than just hearing what the person is saying; it also involves taking into account other factors, such as their tone, facial expressions and body language.

    In order to do this, you have to pay attention to the other person very carefully.

    You shouldn’t let yourself be distracted by anything that comes up; don’t begin thinking about what you will say next. You should listen attentively to the individual and then paraphrase back to them what they just said so they know you are listening.

    This technique includes reflecting back on what you have heard. This is also called summarizing and mirroring. Reflective listening goes beyond mere hearing, in that it requires mental processing of the information received from another person to fully understand their perspective or meaning before responding.

    Active and reflective listening is just one element – being genuine and having empathy are two additional traits that will put you in good standing to support others with their mental wellbeing. As part of communication, active and reflective listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others.

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    Talking isn’t always easy

    If you are the one struggling with communicating about your mental wellness, then sometimes it may feel easier just to “bottle it up”, “not burden others” or “save yourself the embarrassment”. But please know this – talking is good, talking is healthy.

    However, it needs to be safe.

    I’m not encouraging open communication, across a social network for all to see or to publish a post that contains your deepest feelings and emotions. No, we need to find a safe and responsible way to talk about our feelings.

    The first step is to find someone or somewhere safe. An idea would be a mental health professional or a trusted friend, family member, colleague or community. Even if you don’t think they’ll understand what’s going on in your head, still try and talk about how it feels for you. They may have a deeper level of empathy and compassion than you realise.

    Two illustrated individuals sitting, one with their head in their hands

    Next, you need to be honest. It’s important that mental health is discussed in a way that feels safe and comfortable for all parties involved. This means being 100% truthful about what you’re experiencing without judging yourself or the other person. You should be okay with someone saying they don’t want to talk about it anymore. If this happens, respect their wishes, not everyone has the capacity to discuss mental health in depth. But know that you have opened the door for further communication and demonstrated a level of strength by opening up.

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    Mental health is not a one-sided discussion

    It’s an opportunity to talk about what you’re going through and how it makes you feel while also listening to the other person share their thoughts on mental health and how they experience it.

    As with physical health – mental health impacts everyone. No one is immune to being impacted by both positive and negative mental wellness. Opening up and discussing your experience, in a safe environment, can be freeing for all parties involved in the conversation. The more we talk about mental health, the more it becomes normalised and accepted that it’s part of our everyday life.

    If you need someone to talk to, in a safe, non-judgmental way, you are welcome to join Big Orange Heart. Our active peer-support community is full of supportive individuals, taking the time to listen to each other.

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