Sunday 20 January 2019

Sarah Carey: 'We must learn to listen better'

Exercise is key
Exercise is key

Sarah Carey

Today is the final day of the Green Ribbon Campaign, a month-long initiative to get people talking about their mental health.

The idea is that encouraging people, especially well-known people, to discuss their mental health helps to reduce the stigma attached to depression.

But sometimes I wonder how effective these campaigns really are. As far as I can tell, getting people to talk about depression is one thing. Getting someone to listen is another.

It’s easy to be sympathetic when someone you don’t know movingly describes their journey through the fog in the media. Truth be told, it’s a form of entertainment. It’s quite a different experience when a friend or family member tries to communicate those same feelings.

Sometimes that’s because depression manifests itself as anger. That telly star creates an image of the depressed person as someone weeping in bed, unable to function. Who wouldn’t want to give them a hug? The reality can be much more complex.

It’s harder to sympathise with someone who appears to be functioning well but is just in a really bad mood for a very long time. You might find they’re lashing out at you and, in your opinion, unfairly blaming you for their problems. If a relationship has been going wrong, it’s hard to tell the difference between a cry for help and an attack.

Or maybe you’re sympathetic for a while, but if you offer constructive advice that appears to have no effect or your friend won’t follow, frustration sets in. You’ve given them solutions; they won’t accept them. What more can you do? Or maybe you don’t understand why the person has turned to you rather than another, and it’s making life awkward.

A depressed person can start the conversation, but in a context of relationships vastly more complicated than sympathetic victim and heroic responders, it can go badly. So it’s important to get it right, and so easy to get wrong.

What we need are fewer instructions for those who need help and more for those they turn to.


The following are some of the replies a depressed person can expect to hear if they attempt the conversation. I should stress I’m not judging anyone who’s said these things, because some of them I’ve said myself.

1. Sure what have you got to be depressed about?

2. Snap out of it.

3. You’re not depressed. You just need something nice to happen to you.

4. Look around you: people sick and dying. You should be grateful for all you have.

5. It’s not my fault! Why are you blaming me?

6. I’ve got my own problems. I can’t cope with yours.

7. But what do you want me to do about it? You need to talk to X, not me.

8. Well whatever you do, don’t start taking pills. You don’t want to go down that road.

9. You just need to get a job/a girlfriend/go on holiday/a hobby.

10. Get some exercise. Some of these are well meaning.

Some ignorant. Some can sound patronising. So what can you say? Probably as little as possible. Listening and nodding can be enough.

Compassion is the imperative. Resisting the temptation to get defensive, impatient or offer advice is the challenge.

It’s not easy, which is why getting a professional involved is vital. Anyone can talk. Listening is the hard part.


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