Conversations are often described in terms of their minutia (“can I have a quick word” or “making small talk”) but conversations can also make a big difference to people.
That is the message for this year’s national Time to Talk Day (Thursday 4th February) where we are encouraging everyone to start a conversation about mental health. With about 1 in 4 people suffering from mental health problems – and evidence suggesting that this situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic – it is more important than ever that we make the effort to start small conversations.
But how easy is it to start a conversation about mental health when lockdowns, social distancing and isolation make it so difficult to talk about anything with anyone?
Let us break this down and look at this as a number of separate challenges.
Lockdown has put a great strain on society in general, impacting on our economy, our emotions and our ability to engage with others. You may have been working from home for nearly a year now, as I have done myself. You may have been unable to travel to meet family and friends. You may have found the challenge of being at home for so many hours to have had a huge impact on your own resilience. You are not alone in this challenges.
The most common “opportunity” (if I can use this term loosely under such extreme circumstances) is that digital technology enables us to communicate with others more easily during this time. I have spoken more to some family members virtually than I would under normal circumstances. Systems like Zoom and FaceTime have made it easier to see your family, friends and acquaintances.
Social distancing means that any interactions with other people can be impacted. You have to keep two metres apart, most of these interactions will be outdoors (not easy or convenient to chat as snow, wind and rain whip around you) and some people will find this way of talking more difficult. It is hard to be honest about your feelings as you yell through your face mask across the street or to open up about your struggles as you pay for your weekly shop in the middle of Asda.
As much as technology keeps us in contact with the outside world, there is something important for us all in seeing and hearing other people “in person”. So, even though we should be carefully by wearing the right PPE and keeping our distance, we must continue to take advantage of any social interactions available. Whether it is sharing a joke with the pizza delivery guy or safely catching up with your next-door neighbour as you both head out for daily exercise, remember to treat everyone you do see with kindness and empathy (after all, they are probably dealing with their own struggles too).
Isolation has been one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic as many people have been unable to leave their home. Shielding (due to higher risk from the virus) has had a negative side to keeping vulnerable people safe from harm. The old and frail in particular have suffered as ‘casual’ visits from family and friends have dried up. My elderly grandmothers are such examples and I wish I could have seen more of them over the course of this pandemic.
There is help at hand, though. While our health and social care services have been under greater strain than ever before, the third sector has stepped up throughout this pandemic with more services for people in isolation. From befriending services to teaching digital skills to volunteers who will pick up shopping and prescriptions for the housebound, there are some incredible, selfless people out there going out of their way to help those who need it the most.
Yes, these are difficult times for us all and we live in hope that the end of this pandemic is drawing closer.
Yes, it can be so hard to think of the wellbeing of others when your own mental health is low.
Yes, there are opportunities to start a conversation every day even under these extreme conditions.
But how do you actually start the conversation? Many people find it difficult to discuss their feelings under “normal circumstances” so how can we break that stigma and make it easier to have a conversation about mental health?
The answer (and the key theme for Time to Talk Day this year) is to start small.
Nobody expects you to open a casual chat with “how’s your mental health, mate” so do not think that this is your starting point. Open with a friendly icebreaker or a kind compliment. Maybe start with a topic you know that the other person is comfortable talking about. It might feel a bit strange but even the traditional “small talk” subjects like the weather can be an opening for wider conversations. My favourite idea is to organise a “virtual cuppa” with your friends; simply line up an online chat with a brew in hand!
When the time is right, let the conversation flow and remember to:
Ask questions or probe anything the other person has already said - example: “how are you finding it being apart from your family?”
Show you are listening and taking a note of the other person - example: “you sound tired, you said you’re not sleeping is there anything keeping you up at night?”
Do not overcomplicate the conversation, you are not expected to be a counsellor or to diagnose the other person - example: “if you are feeling down, is there anyone you can talk to about it?”
If you feel confident enough, open up about your own struggles to remind the other person that they are not the only ones who have experience poor mental health.
There has been so much emphasis put on getting the country talking about mental health. You may have seen it on television, heard celebrities endorsing the message or you may have come across promotional materials about the helplines and resources on the subject. You can play your part too but remember that talking about mental health is one of the first steps towards recovery and support, it is not the whole answer or the end of the journey.
For the person suffering from poor mental health, a small conversation can be like a hot, soothing drink on a cold night. Knowing that someone else is open to talking about mental health can comfort and inspire them to find the help they need. The support is out there but that small conversation can be the first step they need to talk and it all started with you asking something as simple like “how are you feeling?”