Mental Health: How to listen to those who need to talk

Picture of a wooden hand supporting a weak tree. Depicting supporting those with mental health

We’ve all seen the news, another life ending too soon because of the struggle with mental health. And the saddest thing is that there will be more stories that echo this one, time and time again.

It’s so important for us all to be ready and able to support people with their mental health and I believe we all need to step up and learn to listen to those who need us most. 

But listening is an underrated skill.

It’s not easy to listen at the best of times, let alone when you’re listening to someone you care about share their pain.

It’s hard to feel helpless and to watch someone struggle, and all the while we know that their struggle is far beyond what we may ever come to understand, it doesn’t stop us wanting to ‘fix’ them. It’s this desire to help that can often get in the way of good listening. 

So here are 5 things you need if you want to up your listening  skills and be there when someone comes knocking. 

1) Listen without the need to respond

Suspend your need to respond. 

So often when we listen we’re busy thinking about what we can say or how we can help. 

True listening comes when your own thoughts are suspended and your head is empty. 

How do you so that?

Focus on what you’re being told, suspend the need to fill the silence. Ask open questions and ask them how they need to be supported. 

Let them know that you’ll be there for them

2) Be ok with not having the answer

If the answer was simple, they’d have found it by now. If you find yourself with someone who shares that they are struggling with their mental health, they probably aren’t coming to you for answers. They’re coming for support, and probably just need to know that someone cares enough to listen. 

Never underestimate the power of good listening. 

We are rarely truly listened to, and it is healing in itself when someone gives their time, without the need to judge or offer solutions. 

3) It’s OK to show emotion

We’re all human. We all have emotions and yet many of us try to hide them or conceal them. When did we all get so uncomfortable with negative emotions?

The more we show our vulnerability, the more permission it gives to others to do the same. I’m not suggesting you share your stories of your struggles int eh same conversation – in fact that’s one of the worst things you can do (see next!). Instead, be a role model in your everyday life and show your more vulnerable side. We can all give permission to each other that opening up is a normal thing to do. 

4) Keep your stories to yourself

When someone comes to talk to you, it is not the time to share your stories of hardship with them. Listen first. And listen for longer than you usually would. If you have stories to share about how you relate and that you have been through a similar thing, this is not for the first 5, 10, 15  even 60 minutes of your conversation. Your priority is always to listen.

Saying “I know how you feel, I’ve been through the exact same thing” just sends a message that you don’t want to listen, you want to advise, fix or talk about yourself. It’s well meaning, but it’s not the place. 

5) Know where to go next so that you are afraid

If someone comes to you for help or support with their mental health, would you know what to do if you were concerned about this person’s welfare? What if you thought the person you were talking to was a threat to their own or someone else’s life. Would you know what to do? 

It’s not a situation any of us ever want to be in, not for ourselves, but because we never want anyone to suffer in that way. But people do, and whilst it’s unlikely to happen, it’s good to be prepared. So what would you do?

Many employers these days have policies and procedures around supporting people with mental health so make an action to go and check with your employer today what the process is for referring people you have serious concerns about. 

Always try to do this in collaboration with the person you’re talking to. Chances are, with you by their side they’ll feel stronger and more able to access support. 

If you’re not in a work context here are some options, again I encourage doing this in collaboration

  • Reaching out to a close relative
  • Contacting a charity
  • Booking an urgent appointment at their GP 

Your last call would be the police.

Check out this NHS web page which signposts further support avenues for people struggling with suicidal thoughts  

We know that there are people out there who need the support of people who are willing to listen. So let’s be ready if and when they knock on our door. 

I’m ready and my door is open, is yours? 


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