This Time to Talk Day, take time to time to listen

Rose Thomson

Today is Time to Talk Day, an event organised by the Time to Change Campaign which aims to end stigma for people with mental health difficulties. Time to Talk days offers us an opportunity to have a conversation with our friends, families or colleagues about mental health. At the McPin Foundation, we see high quality research carried out in partnership with people who have mental health difficulties as an important way of tackling stigma. Because this is the focus of our work, we spend a considerable amount of our time talking and thinking about mental health. This is not the case for many people in their day to day lives. This means that for some people it can be difficult to know how to contribute to a conversation about mental health. People may be worried about saying the wrong thing or find it difficult to know how they should respond when someone mentions they have experienced mental distress. For this reason, conversations about mental health can feel like ‘difficult’ conversations to have. 

In the last four years, McPin have conducted a number of research studies and evaluations into peer support, including the Side by Side evaluation. In this context, peer support refers to situations in which people with mental health difficulties support each other by providing emotional, and sometimes practical, support.  Many of the things we have learned through our research with peer supporters can help the rest of us when faced with those sometimes difficult conversations. Peer supporters described how conversations went well when they were based on core values such as feeling safe to talk about emotionally difficult things, and of sharing common experiences with each other. They spoke of relationships in which people concentrated on building a respectful, human connection with each other and in which, most importantly, people felt free to be themselves.

For me, the message from this research that can help those of us feeling a bit nervous about talking about mental distress is this. For someone to be able to open up, to feel respected and to feel heard, someone else needs to be ready and willing to listen. My personal experience with the many wonderful people I have talked to about mental health, both my own and theirs, has taught me this. Frequently, the most valuable thing you can do is to not really talk at all. Frequently, when someone who is experiencing mental health difficulties reaches out to talk, they are not asking for you to have answers and they are not asking for your advice. They are asking to be heard, to feel listened to and to have their experiences respected and understood. Many of us can do something valuable today on Time to Talk day. During those difficult conversations, when we are not sure of what to say, instead of talking, we can listen.