Thursday February 2 2017 is #TimeToTalk Day, an annual event organised by Time to Change to focus attention on mental health. (Time to Change was formed in 2009 by MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, with the aim of reducing mental health-related stigma and discrimination.)
Some feel that awareness campaigns trivialise the lived experience of people with serious mental illness, giving the impression that talking to someone or going for a walk can fix things, or take the place of professional treatment and support. I wholeheartedly agree that a chat with a friend or a breath of fresh air is never going to cure anyone. But I do believe—as the following quotation from the #TimeToTalk webpage makes clear—there is much we can do to lessen the burden of isolation and misunderstanding.
Conversations about mental health change lives.
At the moment, too many people with mental health problems are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless by other people’s reactions. But talking about mental health doesn’t need to be difficult. It can be as simple as making time to have a cup of tea or go for a walk, and listening to someone talk about how they feel. Being open about mental health and ready to listen can make a positive difference to someone’s life.
This is what Time to Talk Day is all about—giving us all the chance to talk and listen about mental health.
What Does “Having a Conversation about Mental Health” Look Like?
Having “a conversation about mental health” might sound daunting, but it simply means allowing someone to talk openly about what’s going on for them. It might be a face-to-face conversation, a phone or video call, or a conversation by e-mail, text (SMS), or instant messaging. Whatever works for you and the other person.
Whatever the channel, there are a few things that distinguish a supportive conversation from the normal everyday kind. I find the following reminders helpful.
Don’t interrupt. This is self-explanatory, but can be one of the hardest to remember. Let the other person share what they want to share, without giving in to the urge to interrupt with your own ideas, suggestions, and questions. I certainly need reminding of this one!
It’s their story, not yours. Don’t monopolise the conversation by recalling times you have been through what they are talking about. “I know just what you mean” is particularly unhelpful. No matter how similar your experiences might seem, their situation is uniquely theirs, and what worked—or didn’t work—for you might not be relevant to them at all. If you are asked for suggestions or advice, fair enough, but wait until you are asked.
Save your judgments for later. It’s hard to listen to someone without analysing and mentally judging what you are hearing. This isn’t wrong in itself—you might need to assess whether the person is in immediate danger, or in need of professional help—but beyond that, your internal dialogue only serves to distance you from what they are sharing with you.
You don’t have to fix everything. Depending on your relationship (partner, child, parent, family member, close friend, colleague, acquaintance, or stranger) you may be in a position to offer help, advice, or support. But it is not your responsibility to fix everything, so hold back with your suggestions unless they are asked for. On the other hand, don’t feel paralysed or useless if you can’t think of anything that could possibly help. If you are present and engaged, you are helping. Often, that is precisely—and all—that is needed. You’d be surprised how rare a gift holding space for someone can be. As it says on the #TimeToTalk webpage:
“It’s #TimeToTalk because if you say something, you realise how many people around you haven’t, and needed to”
But I’m Busy
We are all so busy these days. School, college, work, commuting, chores, children, our own issues and problems, fill our days—and often our nights too. When are we supposed to find time for all these conversations?
#TimeToTalk isn’t about blocking out chunks of “Mental Health Conversation Time” in your calendar—although it might involve committing to meet up for lunch with that friend you haven’t seen in a while, calling on a relative on your way home from work, or turning off the TV after dinner to talk with your partner or child. It’s about being open to what the other person wants to talk about, and not being scared if that includes their mental health, or that of someone they care about.
Think of the people you talk to already. The colleague who gives you a ride home. The person you speak to every Saturday in your favourite café. Social media and the internet mean you can connect with almost anyone, almost anywhere, at almost any time.
It’s Not All about Mental Health
You won’t always be “talking about mental health,” of course. Open conversations span the full gamut of topics: deep and trivial, funny and sad. But if they are genuine, they encompass whatever is going on for you and the other person, and often that does include some aspect of mental health. That said, if you are open to such conversations, you might find yourself having more and more of them. I consider it a privilege that people feel at ease talking with me about topics which so often are kept hidden, because they attract judgemental attitudes, stigma, and discrimination.
Balance and Boundaries
You can’t be there at all times for everyone, however. You are not a 24/7/365 crisis line. Aside from the dangers of burning yourself out, doing too much can lead to codependency, which is unhealthy for both you and the other person. Don’t take on too much, and pay attention to your own health—physical and mental. Remember that #TimeToTalk includes sharing your issues and concerns, as well as listening to those of others.
What Difference Can I Make, Really?
Fran and I believe passionately that all of us—you, me, everyone—can make a difference. Fran knows this first-hand, and I can do no better than close by sharing her words from the Epilogue to our book.
There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness.
Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.