I love Bell Let's Talk Day. It’s a day meant to break down our stigmas and judgments surrounding mental illness so that people living with them have a safe space to talk about their experiences. A conversation we hope to continue all year long. Not only that, but every time we used the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, we raised more than $120 million to assist more than 5 million Canadians in gaining access to mental health services. This year the focus is more on Let’s Listen. As a mental health instructor, I’ve trained thousands of people across the country on how to help people in their lives who are living with mental illness, and I’ve learned that, by far, the best skill you can have is listening. Being an effective listener takes practice. It's not just listening to what the person is saying, but also what they’re not saying, their body language, their actions. Listening also requires awareness of your thoughts, feelings, biases, and stigmas. To truly listen to someone, we need to take all these fragments of information and weave them together in a cohesive way that forms a story – their story.
My favorite part of teaching a course is always the person at the end of the day who bravely wants to ask me a question. They’ll then proceed to tell me their story about their loved one experiencing mental illness. After a few minutes of telling me their story, they’ll ask me a question like "what should I do?" or "Did I say the right thing?". My knee-jerk reaction is that I want to give them options on what to do. I want to find a solution for them. I want to help them fix their problem, but I don’t. While I often encourage a person to seek a professional counsellor and provide them with websites and phone numbers, I recognize now that many times the people coming up to me to ask a question after a course don’t necessarily want a response; they need someone to listen so they can tell their story and feel heard. The following are some tips on what you can do to be a more effective listener to someone in your life who needs to talk today or any other day after #BellLetsTalk day.
- Start the conversation. It’s OK to approach someone; they don’t always have to come to us when there’s a problem. Sometimes they may not know how to start the conversation, but their actions and changes in behaviour can be a subtle invitation that they’d like to talk. Once you notice changes in behaviour, you can start the conversation by specifically pointing out what changes you’ve noticed and why you’re bringing it up. For example, "I’ve noticed that you’ve been missing more assignments lately, and this isn’t like you. How are you doing? I’m asking because I care about you and I don’t want you to fall behind if you need help". Show the person that you are not asking because you feel you have to, but because you genuinely are concerned about them.
- Listen to understand, not to fix. Many of us are solution-focused, which is great if you’re working on a project. But when it comes to people, we are not your project. The act of giving a person a non-judgmental space to talk often is the solution. Open conversations help us to also understand more of what they’re going through, but more importantly, by letting them talk, you are allowing them to listen to their own story and gain a better understanding of what they’re going through. Only when we have awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours can we take healthy steps towards changing them.
- Avoid making assumptions followed by "should" statements. This one is essentially the opposite of listening. Try not to tell someone what they should do, as this often leads to anger; people typically don’t like being told what to do, such as "You should go to the doctor, or talk to a counsellor." Rather, ask them questions about what they think would help. For example, "Have you ever thought about reaching out to a doctor or a counsellor? Or what would help you feel better? "
- Be aware of your own biases and stigmas. We all come with our own set of judgments, and that’s OK, but the key here is to be aware of them so you can better manage them. Listen to your thoughts when thinking about having a conversation with that person and try to rephrase your thoughts into a question to help you when listening to them. For example, we may think a family member who is constantly playing video games is just being lazy. Rather, be aware of this thought but then rephrase it to "Is this perhaps their escape from something else going on in their life?" or "are they not aware that this behaviour is negatively impacting their life or others?" Being aware of our judgements and rephrasing them will help start the conversation with a more open dialogue; "I’ve noticed that you’re playing more video games lately. How come? Are you noticing that playing them too much is impacting your ability to do other things you have to do? "
- Set healthy boundaries. Part of listening effectively is also listening to your needs. While you want to offer care and support for their mental health needs, you can’t lose yours in the process. You also can’t force someone to change their behaviour. Instead, what you can do is offer choices and state what behaviours you’re willing to accept or not. Setting boundaries is not selfish; rather, it is a kindness to you both. When you tell a person directly what you are comfortable helping them with versus what you are uncomfortable helping them with, it won’t come as a surprise when you tell them no later on. Setting a healthy boundary might include saying, "I will help you cover certain bills while you are receiving treatment and making healthy changes in your life. I won’t help you pay for those bills if you are not in treatment as it makes me feel like you are taking advantage of me." The hardest part about boundaries is not setting them, but sticking to them. I always encourage participants in my courses to reach out to a professional counsellor if they need help talking out their needs.
I hope that some of these skills help you have tough conversations, not just today on #BellLetsTalk day but anytime you’re worried about a person's mental health.
Mental Health First Aid Coordinator
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