NOTE: During the month of May you will be reading blog articles from various members of our mental health team at church. Our desire is to initiate conversations about mental health and raise awareness. We seek to lessen the stigma attached to mental health by helping us to talk in helpful ways. This week’s article is by Erin Zwart. She is married to Mark and they have two older elementary age boys. Their family loves Yum Yum doughnuts and they especially enjoy helping other people in various ways as they serve together. Erin also serves as the school nurse at Upper Bucks Christian School.
Do you desire to care more about your friends’ emotional health? Do you ever wish that you could talk more easily about mental health? I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as “a talker,” but I think I am someone who is easy to talk to. I often find myself at the end of a phone line or the receiving end of a text or email from someone who needs a listening ear or a compassionate word. I don’t know when this paradigm started, but I’m glad that it did. I have grown so much in learning to “talk to people.” I’m also a nurse, but I’m not a mental health nurse. In fact, most of my career has been in the very physical area of medical-surgical nursing. My current jobs have me in a school setting with children, and then I also work with adults who have chronic illness and disabilities. However, through the years I’ve learned a lot about the “value of talking.” Regardless if I’m changing the bandage of an adult knee-replacement patient, or giving a high school student an ibuprofen for a headache, my care always starts with a conversation. It’s in the seemingly insignificant conversations with others that we begin to build a relationship of trust and care to prepare us for the bigger conversations to come.
Before someone is going to open up to you about their emotions or mental health, they first have to believe that you care about them. We all know that mental health is important, but how do we start to engage each other in conversations about it? Talking to someone about their emotions or mental health involves a little ground work. First of all, do you really listen when someone is speaking? About any topic? Not only listening to their words, but really “listening” to them — their body language, voice inflections and eye contact. People know when they’re not being listened to. They can perceive closed-off body language, constant glances at a phone, and darting eye contact as your way of saying, “I really don’t have time for you right now.”
- Face someone when they are speaking and look at their face; their eyes. And in our current climate, be conscientious of their comfort level with social-distancing and mask-wearing.
- Notice their body language and demeanor.
- Listen to what they are saying and what “they are not saying” through their gestures or voice inflections.
- Don’t interrupt. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to say next… you will miss what they are saying now.
Secondly, when you start having regular conversations with someone, ask meaningful questions. Not necessarily about their mental health, but about their families, their work, their hobbies and interests. And then try and remember those things! This way you can have another follow-up conversation and keep the ball rolling. Once someone feels like your interest in them is sincere, they will feel less threatened by a question regarding their emotional health, or better yet, decide that you are a person that they could confide in about their mental health.
In order for someone to open up to you about their mental health, they have to feel that you are a “safe space” for them. It is a very vulnerable place to be when you begin to tell someone about “a brokenness” that nobody else can see. It can’t be casted like a broken arm or sutured up in a neat line of stitches with an “end date” for healing. Deep emotional pain, past traumas, and mental illness often don’t have an “end date.” This emotionally suffering person needs to know that it is okay for hurt and hope to coexist. Let them share their hurts and hopes with you without judgment or condemnation. I am not a counselor, and the majority of the people I’ve engaged in conversations about their mental health did not want my counsel. They wanted my listening ear, my empathetic heart, and my available shoulder to lean on! All of us can provide those things to someone. Once someone does share a piece of “their story” with you, check in on them. Not daily. Do not hound them, but enough so that they know that you care and are still there.