Mental health provision, awareness and destigmatisation is as much a College issue as it is a national one; yet we still find it uncomfortable or difficult to talk about.
Recently I attended a workshop from the Royal Society of Chemistry on Wellbeing and Resilience; though it was not exactly what I was expecting - I guess I didn’t pick up as many tips on how to support my own mental health as I had hoped as the session focused mainly on our ability to support a struggling friend or colleague rather than oneself - it did help to contextualise how I have felt previously when trying to explain the route of some of my own mental health problems. In amongst the useful tips on how to alter our language to be more appropriate, the heartbreaking national statistics about mental health illness and provision and techniques which could help start a conversation about mental health, we discussed the main problem: the way we are programmed to listen to each other.
What do I mean? Well, the very thought of silence seems to make people feel genuinely uncomfortable so we – in this case the listeners – feel obliged in a momentary silence to jump straight in with comment/suggestions/ideas/anecdotes to solve our friend or colleague’s problem. In doing so, we are never giving anyone the space to feel heard before we take all the air time and, let’s be honest, never really find out the full extent of the problems. To make matters worse, not only have we been programmed by society to always fill silence, dare I say that in our College community as scientists we have a certain disposition to think of logical solutions to seemingly simple problems, as though it is our place and position to determine whether something causing our friend or colleague stress or worry is ours to judge the level of “simplicity” to it.
My point is thus, taking the time to listen thoughtfully and completely is something which takes more skill and practice than we truly give it credit for; sometimes it is difficult to see past our own personal view of a situation. For example, this week is Eating Disorder Awareness week; I struggled with Atypical Anorexia for around five years but it can be almost impossible to explain the fear, pain and anxiety that thoughts around food would have on me to another person, which in itself discouraged me from talking. Say I did finally reach out for help and I was advised by a friend/colleague that all I needed was to “eat more”, I can promise you this is neither helpful nor supportive and I had actually already figured that one out for myself. This may seem like a stupid analogy, maybe it seems obvious that it would be unhelpful to tell someone with anorexia to eat, but then why did I hear that very phrase so often? Fundamentally everyone was so desperate to help and it truly came from a place of caring, but also of misunderstanding, and we do this far too often without even realising. Often someone struggling with a mental health problem knows the “simple solution”, jumping into a conversation when someone is confiding in you to tell them something they may already know may actually at times be counter-productive because it can feel dismissive.
This is not to say you shouldn’t talk to anyone or never give advice; rather the opposite, sometimes the support from a friend is the first step to recovery. But maybe, when there’s that inevitable awkward silence or a problem seems to have a simple solution, bite your tongue for a few more seconds and encourage your friend to keep talking a little bit more – there might be more to it than the first break in the explanation.