Peter Shaw: Being a better listener for people with mental health issues
Peter encourages us to aspire to be better listeners. Helpful tips are gleaned from the Samaritans' 'Talk to us' campaign and shared with us in this article.
Drawing on the Samaritans “Talk to us” campaign, we are all encouraged to learn to be better listeners. The Talk to us campaign is run annually, by the charity, to raise awareness and share tips around being a better listener and how this can help support people with mental health issues. As someone with depression and social anxiety, I know the comfort and support that being a great listener can bring. Often people trying to support those with issues like mine don’t realise that they don’t need to be an expert with a vast knowledge of mental health to help. All they often need to do is listen and be there for us. So I thought I’d share some ways in which we can improve our listening ability and support those with a mental health issue when they need us.
Currently the Samaritans promote the use of SHUSH listening tips, which I fully support:
- Show you care: Although the Samaritans are best known for running a phone service supporting people with mental illnesses, they recognise the importance of showing you care and are listening through maintaining eye contact. As someone who has been through therapy for anxiety, I can say the best thing my therapist would do after asking me a question, would be looking me in the eyes, nodding her head to my answers and while occasionally jotting down notes. She would always maintain eye contact with me which made me feel like she was really listening to what I was saying. Keeping a listening diary has also been promoted by the Samaritans. You write down how much you remember from a conversation you had and note down anything that distracts you. I know myself that my brain can often distract me when I’m talking to people with all sorts and so remembering to bring my focus back to the conversation is hugely important.
- Have patience: This is absolutely key when talking and listening to people with mental health issues. It isn’t easy to open up about an issue; it takes a lot of trust and courage for a person to talk about things so don’t expect people to instantly say everything that they are feeling. What’s more, when I’ve spoken about my anxiety or depression to my therapist, I often find myself feeling like I have too much on my mind and need to break down how I’m feeling, which takes time. If we listen without judgment to people though, and support them when they open up, it will help them say more and feel more confident in talking to us in the future.
- Use open ended questions: Asking open ended questions like “how are you feeling today?” is a really good way of letting people express themselves and open up as it avoids people simply answering yes or no to a question. When I was going through therapy I would always find it helpful when my therapist asked me these questions, as it allowed me time to think about how I was really feeling and what I was really going through.
- Say it back: Repeating back what people have said while opening up is an important way to both clarify what they’ve said, show that you’re listening, and making sure that you understand how you feel. I’ve always found it useful when people say it back to me to clarify what I have meant as when I’m feeling depressed or anxious, I can often struggle to say what I want and explain how I’m feeling as well.
- Have courage: What’s important though is listening after everything else, and having the courage to listen to someone, not talk over them or try to fill silences is a key part of letting someone know you are there for them and aren’t judging them. Courage also means for me, not being put off by an unsure or even negative response as mental illness is such a tricky and stigmatised subject for people to open up about. It won’t always be that people feel able to open up straight away and being patient and having courage to keep listening through negative reactions is a great skill.
Samaritans wants to encourage people to listen to the really important things their friends, family and colleagues need to tell them, and to actually devote some time and attention to being better listeners.
When people feel listened to, it can save a life.