The power of listening
By: Sarah Walsh
Updated: 02 May 2017
According to the Mental Health Matters Report (2016), there has been a 41% increase in the number of college students seeking counselling. This is a staggering increase and it’s no surprise that a lot of university counselling services are struggling to meet this demand.
In my spare time, I volunteer as a peer mentor. I am one of the founding members of my university’s Mental Health Society, and we provide a peer mentoring service which can act as a bridge or a gatekeeper for struggling students until they can be seen by a professional. This peer mentoring service takes place in our Mental Health Hub. This is a safe space where anyone can drop by and have a chat, have a cup of tea, or just “be”.
All of the peer mentors have received training for their role, which I’ve personally found to be useful not only in my mentoring experience, but in my everyday life also. Active listening is more than just listening as someone tells a story, it means really engaging with them, giving them your 100% undivided attention. We know this technique is effective in helping those struggling with their mental health as we have seen it come up time and time again in various campaigns, such as the #littlethings campaign. It allows that person to feel heard, to feel cared for.
I learned that your body language says more than your words ever could. How you sit, your posture, or whether your arms are folded or not says so much about your attitude towards the person in front of you. So when I find myself in a situation where active listening is appropriate, I make a conscious effort to keep my two feet firmly on the ground and my arms unfolded. I make eye contact and lean in towards the person talking. This portrays interest and concern.
I have also found that reflective language goes a long way to letting someone know you care. By repeating back to the person what they have just told you, it shows you’re listening, you’re trying to understand and you want to help.
However, this help does not involve offering advice. I learned that while someone else’s situation might be similar to what I’ve experienced in the past, I have to give them the respect in knowing that it is different, and what worked for me may not work for them. The point of active listening is to listen to that individual in that moment, and guide them to finding their own solution. Their decision to reach out and ask for help has been a big one, and it’s more important to support that individual in that moment than to offer advice.
The Mental Health Society recognises what a lonely place college can be at times. At the start of the semester, you have a brief period of time where everyone mingles, before everyone groups off. From here it can be difficult to integrate yourself into already established groups, and you can very quickly find yourself on the outside looking in. As a peer mentor and advocate for mental health, it is important to me that there are alternative events and opportunities in college for students to socialise – events that don’t involve a club and shots!
We recently hosted a mental health gig in Whelan’s called Craicin’ Up. The idea behind this event was to create a safe, inviting, inclusive event for everyone and anyone to come together and embrace mental health and mental illness in a non-judgemental environment.
Comedians, singers, bands and poets performed at the gig, providing something for everyone! The atmosphere in the venue was incredible – there was such a warmness in the air that once you stepped through those wooden double doors, it was impossible not to feel welcomed. By creating this kind of environment, stigma was gone and it was as though a weight had lifted off everyone’s shoulders and they could just “be”. This in itself is reason enough to be a peer mentor and it made the whole experience worthwhile.
Not every college has a peer mentor system in place, however. If you are finding yourself struggling with your mental health and can’t wait any longer to be seen by your college counselling service, MyMind offers appointments within 72 hours to students at a discounted rate of €20. You can book your appointment here or alternatively call 076 680 1060.
By MyMind Intern Sarah Walsh.
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