Viv Dickenson: How lending an ear is first step to recovery

A shoulder to lean on: Listening, and being listened to, is good for your mental health. Picture: Contributed
A shoulder to lean on: Listening, and being listened to, is good for your mental health. Picture: Contributed
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Listening to other’s demons can improve lives and mental health at home and at work, says Viv Dickenson

In Scotland this year, one in four adults and one in ten children will experience a mental health problem.

An experience of mental ill-health such as anxiety or depression is not an unusual reaction to life events and is being increasingly recognised as such. For organisations, like CrossReach, who are involved in supporting people to recover from mental health issues, this represents huge progress. When people recognise that what they are experiencing is normal, even common, the stigma surrounding it is reduced, and they feel able to ask for support.

To build on this progress, the mental health support service Breathing Space – backed by Scottish Government – have made 2016 the Year of Listening because “listening, and being listened to, is good for your mental health.” It helps you feel connected to other people and contributes to feelings of self-worth, self-confidence and happiness.

There is no doubt that this is borne out by our experience. Reflecting on his time at our Sunflower Garden service in Edinburgh, which supports young people affected by parental substance use, one young person concentrated not on the activities on offer, or the fun he had, but touched on something much deeper – that need within us all to be heard and understood: “I have been listened to. Come to Sunflower so that you know you are not alone.”

In March, The World Health Organisation published a report highlighting an increase in the prescribing of antidepressants to children and young people. While we affirm the place of antidepressants in supporting the mental health of some young people, we also need to offer a credible alternative which helps children understand the root cause of their anxiety or depression, make sense of their reactions to life circumstances, and to help them to rebuild confidence and develop useful tools to overcome other difficulties when they strike. Listening to them with integrity and honesty is the first step in their recovery and ability to bounce back.

We know that listening helps with healing from past and present hurts; but we also recognise that it has an important place in shaping the future. The Year of Listening campaign is aiming to make an impact on positive mental health and to challenge all of us to be better listeners, at home, at work, and in our friendships.

In particular, taking up this challenge in the workplace will have a massive benefit for the wellbeing of our communities. The Health and Safety Executive reports that there were 440,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2014/15 – 35 per cent of all work-related illness in the UK. While the effect on workplace morale and productivity, and the economic impact of 9.9 million lost working days, is significant, more important are the difficulties faced by each individual involved. When people are struggling to cope with stress at work, their relationships with their family and friends outside of work can be damaged too. Facing this situation without support is overwhelming, but having access to a listening ear can be a simple and cost effective solution.

Often, talking to a trusted friend or family member is a helpful way to deal with stress and anxiety. Sometimes, however, talking to a professional counsellor is what is needed. Employee Assistance Programmes, like CrossReach’s Confidential Conversations service, are an increasingly valued part of the modern workplace as employers become more aware of the impact of work-related stress and recognise there is an effective solution.

Employee Assistance Programmes offer the workforce direct access to confidential counselling services so that stress and anxiety can be tackled before they cause time off work and begin to affect people’s general wellbeing and relationships. Having a place to go with concerns and difficulties also improves job satisfaction and makes work a better place to be. When people are free of the burden of negative stress, they can live their personal and work lives to the full.

Widening access to Employee Assistance Programmes has a further benefit. Making this kind of support an ordinary part of the modern workplace is another step towards recognising that experiencing an episode of mental ill health is normal. It encourages people to know that their employer is not judging them, that their colleagues may be going through similar experiences, and that there is an effective solution which means they don’t have to battle on alone.

Let’s make sure that the Year of Listening has a lasting impact on the way we think about our mental health, and on the way we support each other to overcome issues like stress, anxiety and depression, both at home and at work.

• Viv Dickenson is Director of Children and Family Services at CrossReach (www.crossreach.org.uk)