I was recently invited to an event at George Street Social in Newcastle. They had a panel of four different people; Jonny Benjamin the author of Stranger On A Bridge, Ashley Lowe the Health and Wellbeing Manager at Newcastle United Foundation, Matt from If You Care, Share; and Paula Cowie from the Road to Recovery Trust.
Lucy Nichol led the panel in a discussion of their own – very different - experiences in mental health but the common theme was around supporting one another and talking about mental health a lot more. Jonny spoke about his experience of being suicidal and about to jump from a bridge before a member of the public stopped to speak with him and talked him down. Ashley spoke about Newcastle United Foundation’s campaign on encouraging men in particular to start talking more openly about mental health. Matt told everyone about when his older Brother had taken his own life and why it had taught him the importance of talking about mental health and asking for help when you need it. Then, Paula talked about her own battles with drug addiction and how beneficial attending a support group had been to her.
The individual stories of experience shed light on the fact that responding to a mental health conversation is particularly important because it can make a huge difference – especially to the person initiating it. So, the entire event inspired this post of five of – what I think – are the greatest ways to respond to someone initiating a conversation about mental health.
Firstly, know that you wouldn’t have been approached to talk about mental health if people thought you weren’t going to listen to the conversation! I’m a firm believer that for someone to begin a discussion around mental health – particularly their own – means making themselves completely open and vulnerable, and the least the other person could do is to respect that by listening to them! I always say that there’s a difference between hearing and listening; you can hear what someone has to say, and it doesn’t change a thing, and has little to no impact on you. Or, you can sit and actually listen to someone talk, soak in their words, and let them affect you.
This is controversial but I think that commenting on what someone is saying, can be a great sign that you’re listening to them. Some people think the exact opposite and believe that ‘listening’ means not commenting at all to show that the person ‘has the floor’ and that they can talk for as long as they like without worry of interruption. Commenting, though, doesn’t have to be made as an interruption!
As someone who has spent hours upon hours talking to an impossibly large number of people about mental health; I can ‘tell’ when someone isn’t listening to me. I know when a person is distracted, when they’re pretending to listen, and even when they’re just sat there and aren’t taking in what I’m saying. I guess my point here is, don’t bother faking it; ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ doesn’t apply here!
I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’m probably one of The Worst People for judging a book by its cover; but I’m learning. I don’t know where I get it from; I wasn’t brought up to be that way and my Mum definitely isn’t like that… I think it’s probably more to do with the abuse; in that as soon as he first hurt me, I developed the black and white thinking process. I thought that people were either unanimously ‘good’ or exceptionally ‘bad’ and that there could be no one in the world with both traits in them. And thanks to the constantly negative media coverage of the subject, I had huge judgements and assumptions in mental health too! I thought I was crazy when I started hallucinating and was convinced, I’d end up in a straitjacket, being taken away to our local psychiatric hospital by men in white jackets!
Even within mental health services, there is judgement everywhere you turn; and it isn’t just the staff/professionals. You’d think that after all of the stigma we – as mental health service users – face, we’d be kind to one another but it just goes to show that no matter what the diagnosis, we’re all human and we all make assumptions and have preconceived ideas. As an inpatient, I saw a lot of negativity between others on the ward around things like methods of self-harm and types of hallucinations. There was one girl who self-harmed by abusing her diabetes medication and some inpatients saw this as insignificant compared to their ways of cutting or restricting their diet. It was definitely hard not to fall into this utter bitchiness, but I always told myself not to say anything about someone that I wouldn’t want said about me.
I hate to say it, but it has taken something like my mental health to teach me that you shouldn’t judge another person for the part of their life you walked in on.
Empathize/try to understand
I’m very cautious with this one; you have to be so careful not to come across as patronizing and belittling or leave the other person feeling as though it’s a competition and you’re trying to say that you’ve gone through worse. When used correctly, this response should leave the other person feeling as though they’ve been understood, and their difficulties appreciated and respected. I try to relate to people by thinking of times when I’ve had similar thoughts and feelings – and always stress to that person that I recognize my experiences and reasons behind having those thoughts and feelings are completely different to their own.
This response can also help people to feel less alone. In mental health it is incredibly – and sadly – very easy to become lost in your thoughts and feelings and develop the conviction that you’re completely alone in experiencing these things and that there is no one in the world who could possibly understand how you feel. But this isn’t true. Whilst it’s equally important to recognize that two people could go through – what is labelled to be – the same thing and yet come out with two completely different responses.
One time, when I was in Hospital after self-harming, a Nurse told me that she too had been abused when she was younger and that she hadn’t resorted to self-harming so thought it was ‘no excuse.’ That was a difficult conversation because in addition to creating feelings of loneliness, the comment also left me feeling like a failure with the thought that I must be weak to have responded to the abuse in the way that I have.
Another danger with empathizing by using an example of something that has happened to you is upsetting the other person with the details – no matter how vague you are. Sometimes I’ve had people tell me what they’ve been through and it’s upset me to think about how terrible things happen to good, honest, and lovely people.
Promote other sources of help and support
It is so important to recognize when you might be ‘out of your depth’ in a conversation about mental health and are unsure on how to respond or feel like the chat is too intense and overwhelming for you, and perhaps the person needs a different kind of support. It can be challenging to actually say this to someone because – and it’s perfectly justified – you can be scared you’ll upset them and that it’ll have a negative impact on your relationship. It might be even be hard for yourself because you worry that you’ll seem like a useless failure if you ‘admit’ you aren’t the right person to help someone.
Something to bear in mind here, is also not to feel to blame if your recommendation goes wrong and the person doesn’t find the other source beneficial; if you’ve made that recommendation with the best intentions then you have nothing to feel guilty for.
It took me a long time to realize that I needed professional support and it took even longer to actually get the right, specialist help… but when I did? Well they helped save my life!
Ultimately, I think that in mental health – and life in general – you really need to adopt the attitude ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated.’ And if you can’t imagine it being you, think of someone you love and care for; how would you like them to be treat in a conversation about mental health? Before you respond in a particular way, consider whether you’d be happy if someone responded in that way to your loved one.