Here at Verbal, we have been designing and delivering our Reading Rooms programme for the last 6 years. 

Reading Rooms is a group-based bibliotherapy intervention which generates targeted discussions around high-quality literature to foster emotional wellbeing and build resilience.  At its core, Reading Rooms is built on the understanding that being able to share your story while feeling supported and listened to can produce positive psychological change.  As we have continued to enhance and refine this programme over the years, we have gained a deep understanding of how creative and imaginative conversation can impact your mental health. 

In the wake of World Suicide Prevention Day, a message that you will no doubt have seen repeated across social media highlights the importance of talking.  We were encouraged to reach out to someone we trust and let them know if we’re going through a tough time.  This message is certainly an important one.  For many people, talking to someone about what they are going through represents a first and necessary step towards recovery.  While on the surface, this sounds like a simple action, for most of us, it isn’t an easy step to take. 

Talking about our thoughts and feelings isn’t something we usually do very well.  It’s difficult to tell someone that you’re feeling anxious or depressed, and while attitudes are improving, there is still a shadow of stigma that hangs over conversations about our mental health.  Therefore, the courage it takes to be vulnerable and reach out to someone shouldn’t be underestimated.  It is great to see more people having conversations about the importance of reaching out and talking, but it raises another important question; how can we support someone when they do want to talk about their mental health?

From our experience developing Reading Rooms, we have found that one of the most powerful things you can do is listen.  Here are some simple guidelines that we follow in Reading Rooms sessions that can help all of us become better listeners.  

Set time aside 

Modern life can be hectic.  Everyone seems to have 101 things on their to-do list, and it can be difficult to find the time to sit and talk but it’s the first step towards being able to listen properly.  If someone wants to talk to you about their mental health, that conversation is important, and it deserves time and attention dedicated to it.  Find a safe and comfortable time and place so that you can talk without distraction or interruption.   

Give encouragement   

One of the scariest things about telling someone you’re going through a tough time is that you don’t know how they’re going to react.  If a loved one comes to talk to you, it’s important to give them encouragement and reassurance. Little things like saying you’re glad they came to talk to you can help put them at ease and make it easier to talk.   

Avoid clichés  

In these types of situations, it can be tempting to use clichés to attempt to comfort the other person, but this can sometimes have the opposite effect.  Phrases like ‘I know what you’re going through’ or ‘everything’s going to be ok’ can be unhelpful because a lot of the time, you won’t fully understand what the other person has been experiencing and you can’t promise that everything is going to be perfect and work out so these sentiments can sometimes feel hollow.  Instead, you can give comfort by allowing the other person to tell you what they’ve been going through and by listening to them without judgement.       

Be patient 

Sharing personal thoughts and feelings is a scary thing to do and it can be difficult to explain complicated emotions.  With this in mind, being patient and allowing the person who’s sharing to set the pace and talk in their own time can be really helpful.  You can make them feel at ease by allowing them to share as much or as little as they want, without rushing them or pre-empting what they’re going to say next.  Stay calm, and don’t be afraid of some silence here and there.  You don’t need to scramble to find answers or advice, sometimes just listening without judgement is all that’s needed.       

Follow up 

If someone close to you does open up to you about their mental health, one way that you can support them is by keeping this new pathway of communication open for them.  It can be easy to slip back into old routines and for a conversation like this to be a one-off.  You can avoid this by following up on your conversation over the next few days.  This could be something as simple as sending them a quick text to check in or asking them how they’re getting on the next time you see them.  When we normalise talking about how we feel, we help remove the anxiety associated with these conversations so they can become more regular and natural.   

Finally, remember that if you have a loved one in your life who you think is going through a difficult time, you shouldn’t feel like you need to wait for them to talk to you.  Many of us are afraid to ask the people closest to us about their mental health in case we upset them or make things worse, but most of the time this isn’t the case.  If you feel like someone you know is struggling or needs support, consider asking them if they would like to talk to you.  Even if they refuse at the time, you will have shown them that the door is open and that you’re there for them if they need you.  Remember that one of the most powerful things you can do to help someone who needs to talk is to listen to them.