“Step One, Be an Active Listener”

Written by Former Sean’s House Peer Support Specialist, Angela Livingston

I grew up within a generation of individuals that generally flinched when they heard the word suicide.

In a study done by the American Psychological Association in 2019 , they found that 39% of the participants would view someone differently if they knew they had a mental disorder; 33% of the participants thought people with mental health disorders were scary.

As I have spent my entire college career immersed in the vast world of psychology and mental illness I struggle trying to fathom how one could possibly see the struggles of another as ‘scary’. However, growing up as I have there more often than not wasn’t an adult telling me how to care for myself mentally.

I knew if I fell, get a band aid. If I had serious chills, check my temperature. Cough into my elbow. Wash my hands, it’s nasty if I don’t. We learned all these things. But when a middle school aged child was bullied so badly to the point they felt they could not live any longer it was labeled a tragedy, a heartbreak.

It is all those things.

But they were not surrounded by people who knew how to be an active listener, how to be empathetic, how to be kind to others. The people around this child were not informed of the warning signs, they were not taught how to intervene healthily, they were waiting for a flashing ‘help’sign to warn them. There was one, but they didn’t know where to look to find it. 

I began my journey into self help by realizing my own strengths. I knew I had a lot of love and care to give to others, and I knew I was a strong listener and decent with advice. I don’t know how or where that skill came from, but when some of my closest friends laid their unbearable problems onto my shoulders, I knew I’d be able to help carry the weight for them.

I took this skill further when I turned 18 and decided to become a volunteer crisis counselor for the Crisis Text line. This is a place where empathy and strong listening skills radiate from every crisis counselor and supervisor on the platform. This is the kind of process that oozes kindness from every corner. Because of the three-plus years I have spent with them, I am fully able to write this blog today. 

I cannot speak for every person in the world, everyone is different in their own unique and wonderful way. But I can help shed some light on how to be a friend when somebody needs one. A lot of times when people are hurting, they already know how to solve the solution. If they have a rough relationship, they know it’d be best for them to get out of it. You know it, they know it, we know it. Instead of judging this individual as many do, (pause and think if you do this, or remember a time where somebody around you has done this) start by putting yourself directly in their shoes. Sit in front of the mirror, point at yourself, and say “hey, imagine if I was them, wow… yeah, that is tough, how can I best help them in a way I’d want them to do for me?”. By being an active listener you start by validating their feelings, “I’m sorry you’re going through that, I can imagine that is really tough for you and is painful.” Validating the feelings of others is a magical thing, they are struggling to swim and you are throwing a buoy. By validating their feelings you are giving reassurance that they can trust you to allow them to be honest and open, this is a key way to make them feel heard. 

The next, and debatably most important step, is to fight the immense urge to say “something similar happened to me when…”. This is okay in certain situations when advice and input is sought out, in a peer specialist type setting for example. This is where one seeks out the support of others with previous experience in this situation specifically. But oftentimes with a friend, family member, acquaintance, you are then taking the focus away from their issues and turning it towards you. By doing this you are removing the buoy from their grasp and they are left struggling to tread water while you bring the attention to yourself; you already have three floaties… give one back. 

The last key piece of advice I will drop into this blog post is to remember body language really resonates with others. It’s super awkward when you’re expressingly pouring your heart and soul into a conversation and you glance up to realize the person you’re talking to is reading a text, watching the TV, looking away, doing anything but listening. If you want to be the one to throw them to buoy, then you have to be looking at them.. or else you’ll completely miss the throw.

Seeing mental illness from a far is only scary because it is something we do not fully understand. The individual who is struggling, they’re scared. They want to be heard, they want to be accepted, and they want to be helped. By being an active and empathetic listener you are already helping knock out ⅔ of those things. By being an active listener, you’re completing the first step of saving a life.