Being a better listener will lead to more mental health conversations

Feb 2 2018, 3:49 am

Another #BellLetsTalk Day has passed and our social media feeds have now gone back to regular programming.

While Canadians were opening up about their experiences and challenges with mental health on January 31, it suddenly feels like we have to wait another year to have serious discussions about why mental health matters.

This is not to say that #BellLetsTalk is not a worthy cause. The campaign – which donates 5¢ to Canadian mental health initiatives when a text or call is sent off the Bell network or the #BellLetsTalk hashtag is used on social media – managed to raise $6,919, 199. 

But when #BellLetsTalk day ends, it seems like speaking openly about mental health also tends to die down. 

Every year, people participate in the campaign stress how important it is to keep talking about mental health.

So why don’t we?

Guilty of being a bad listener

After taking some time to think about this, I realized how lopsided our cultural narrative about mental health tends to be.

We want people to open up and tell their most personal (and vulnerable) stories. But we don’t bother discussing how to be good listeners; how to teach people when to employ empathy and compassion, when to provide support and structure, and when to simply handle everything with silence and a comforting hug.

When someone does speak out about their anxiety, depression, mood disorder, or other mental health challenges they’re exposing themselves to a level of judgement uncommon in everyday life – and they deserve to feel safe in doing so.

Looking back on my own experiences with mental health I realized that I was also guilty of being a bad listener.

This needs to stop.

Shut up and listen

Last year, a friend I care for deeply started to change. It’s the kind of change that came about slowly and turned into a confusing whirlwind that ultimately had a major impact on my understanding of the connection between mental health, listening and empathy.

This person began displaying occasional mood swings and eventually increased into a shift in personality.

I didn’t know what was causing them to feel this way and I tried to brush it off as nothing. After all, everyone has their bad days, right? But one bad day turned into another until there were bad weeks and months. I became worried.

I desperately wanted them to open up to me, and eventually, they did. We were finally going to talk about it. 

They revealed they felt exhausted on a daily basis and that they were losing the ability to concentrate on basic tasks. They were trying to tell me this had an increasingly negative impact on their mental health and wellness.

In that moment all I needed to be was a listener. But instead, I thought that if I could just give them some advice, they would be able to overcome whatever they were going through.

I thought that telling them to “push through” and “work a bit harder” would be the motivational way to get them back on track.

I was trying to fix them more than I was trying to understand them.

I kept spewing tips at them, not realizing that this only added to the problem. I was causing them to become even more closed off than before. What I needed to do was just shut up and listen. 

Every conversation needs a good listener

Eventually, I realized that I needed to change the way I participate in conversations about mental health. It can be hard to reprogram the way you listen, but learning how to do so with empathy is such an important part of being a good support system for someone’s mental health.

There’s no doubt that speaking out about mental health beyond #BellLetsTalk is needed. But if we want more people to open up and not feel alone about their mental health battles, we first need to do some work on the ways we listen.

So let’s keep talking about the way we listen, and – eventually – everyone will be heard.

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Simran SinghSimran Singh

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