People are complicated. Our lives don’t fit into tidy boxes with perfect labels. This is especially true of our mental health. No one person’s experience with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thinking are exactly the same. And talking about mental health is tough. There’s still a lot of shame and confusion surrounding it, along with the belief that we have to say and do the right things in order to engage in the dialogue. It can feel overwhelming and downright frightening when the subject matter goes over our heads. Depending on your experience, it can be hard to know where the ‘safe’ and ‘appropriate’ places are to talk about it. So how do we approach conversations about mental health with compassion and care?
I recently had dinner with my friend Emily Lecerf, and our conversation turned to mental illness. Emily is on staff with P2C’s ministry called Connecting Streams (CS). If you’ve never heard of them, CS is a ministry that equips and provides the church with opportunities to engage with the marginalized in their communities. Their teams come face to face with the realities of mental illness on a regular basis.
Emily shared a challenging encounter she had during a visit to a local prison. A young man expressed to her team that he didn’t think he had any reason left to live and that he had plans to take his life. Emily recalled that she felt frozen, thinking “How in the world am I supposed to handle these sorts of things?” As a leader, she realized, “If I’m feeling helpless, then maybe others are feeling the same thing.”
This experience prompted the staff team to call on the expertise of long-time friend and psychologist Dr. Cath Thorlakson to train them on mental health awareness and suicide prevention. I reached out to Dr. Cath at Vanguard College in Edmonton where she teaches pastoral care and counseling. Her passion is to help people understand the complexities of mental health while also making it approachable.
“Nothing is simple,” she begins. “Just because you see an issue one way doesn’t mean you know what the problem is for the next person.” She challenges people to “take the simplicity out of mental health issues.” She believes if we enter the conversation thinking it’s simple and that we have the answers, we won’t do well truly listening to what people have to say. Her advice to us all is to “know less, listen more, and don’t be afraid to broach difficult subjects.”
We’re not all going to have conversations like Emily’s, but we all have the opportunity to engage with the people around us who are struggling. I encourage us all to glean from Dr. Cath’s training and take steps towards shedding the worry we feel about having the ‘right’ things to say. “We need to get curious and focus on asking questions and just caring for people,” she says. “Take the pressure off yourself to know all the answers.” In her experience, people just want to be listened to. Our responses can simply be about letting them know we’re here, we care, they’re valuable, and their experience matters.
There might be times we feel ‘in over our heads’, and that’s worth paying attention to. It’s wise to check in with ourselves and the people around us to discern if professional action steps need to be taken. For this reason, it’s important to know who the experts are so we don’t have to be one. Lastly, let’s continue stripping back the fear and misunderstanding that surrounds mental health. Dr. Cath says we can do this through honesty. “There are a lot of us who struggle with mental health issues. Our honesty about them will go a long way in reducing the stigma around mental health.”