Most of us can certainly agree that communication is one of the most basic and necessary skills required to lead a meaningful and influential life. Despite this seemingly unanimous consensus, one seldom comes across ways to improve this vital skill. While we have been talking about mental health over the last few weeks, one concern we have not addressed in its entirety is what stops people from getting the help that they need. These barriers to reaching out range from stigma and stereotypes to well-intentioned adults who simply do not know what signs to look for and whom to turn to for help. Many of these barriers may also be larger, systemic issues like poverty and heteronormativity. We are certainly not going to be able to change these things overnight but we can and must start somewhere. Discourse is as good a starting point as any and is the first step in changing attitudes towards mental health.

Communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking. A good communicator is always a good listener first. Let’s talk about some ways in which you can start to improve your listening skills. To begin with, it is important to recognize and even perhaps expect that we will come across people with whom we disagree. When this happens, it is important to be respectful and acknowledge the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. In conversations, it also helps to be genuinely interested, and asking open-ended questions helps to move the conversation along. These questions typically begin with “how” or “what” and are not intended to elicit a “yes” or “no” response. If the speaker speaks at length, it can be helpful to summarize what they’ve said. This helps the speaker know if you are tracking along and you get the gist of what they are saying. Also, do not be afraid to ask for clarification. This can often be preceded by a reflection on part of the listener. Once a reflective statement is made, the listener may ask something like: “Was there anything I missed?” or “Did I get that right?”

Another important aspect of communication is setting boundaries. When it comes to boundaries, it is essential to be clear about what the boundary is; if you’re not, others won’t be either. It would also be wise to expect some violations, therefore, it is important to think about the consequences ahead of time. Consistency goes a long way in establishing boundaries too. Besides, healthy interpersonal communication warrants empathy and respect for (and interest in) others’ cultures, experiences  and values. Where needed, it is important to be assertive and communicate your needs and thoughts clearly rather than engaging in sarcasm or being a doormat altogether.

Until we create a world where people are embraced for who they are, it is incumbent upon us as responsible members of society to advocate for causes that affect those around us. This includes advocating for mental health which helps us to create a more open and respectful society. One can use the power of social media to affect positive change and help build a more fact-based, mainstream narrative around mental health. It is also important to reach out for professional help if you are in distress, are unable to function, or simply need a trained, non-judgmental ear to hear you out.

In her book, ‘ The Gifts of Imperfection’, Brene Brown says: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” This brings our conversation to the self-imposed barrier of not reaching out. Our minds are great at playing tricks on us and one of the most effective ways it does this is by inducing shame. The shame spiral will have you questioning your worth in no time. Luckily, we have an antidote to shame. Shame needs secrecy, silence, and judgment to grow exponentially and seep into every aspect of our lives. What can instantly stop shame in its tracks is empathy. Empathy is not a scarce or limited resource. The path to empathy, however, involves being vulnerable and radically honest with oneself first. It is only then that we can forge meaningful connections with others. To be vulnerable is to be courageous because you are permitting yourself to show up as you are. Vulnerability lets one be seen and heard which allows for compassion. Vulnerability, therefore, becomes the birthplace of connection, courage, and compassion – the gifts of imperfection.

It would only be fitting to end our series on mental health with a reminder that all of us will deal with struggle in life in one form or another. We are not infallible. We must lean into vulnerability and reach out for support. Every conversation we have on this topic brings us a little closer to a world that greets everyone with kindness. Every step counts. Make your voice heard!

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