If you’re like most people, you probably consider yourself a pretty good listener. But you might not be as good as you think you are. It’s true—in their 2013 book, The Plateau Effect, authors Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson point to several studies that show most of us actually “stink at listening.”
But there’s good news, says Jerilyn Dressler, Executive Director at Distress Centre Calgary: We can all become better. She should know—the Centre provides support through crisis and 211 lines, crisis chat and a professional crisis counselling program, so listening, and training people to listen, is a big part of her job.
“When we first start training new volunteers for our help lines, we see a natural tendency to jump to solutions with callers or with each other,” she says. That usually means the listener has jumped to conclusions based on personal experience or preconceived notions. There’s an unfortunate outcome to that misstep: it may inadvertently alienate the person they’re trying to help.
So, how do you really listen? Dressler says it’s important to have your friend focus on the main problem, and really allow them time to talk about its impact. You want to ask questions that will further shed light on the situation: What was the last straw? What was the thing that caused you to bring this to my attention? “You want to focus on the feelings and emotions surrounding the situation and make sure you’re demonstrating empathy,” says Dressler.
Once you think you have a grasp of the issue, you can start paraphrasing some of the problems and how they are creating issues in the person’s life—but continually check in to ensure what you’re saying is accurate. “Always offer an opportunity for the other person to correct you, because you may have gotten it wrong,” says Dressler.
Even once you understand the person’s issue, it’s best to be careful when dispensing advice. Instead, have friends come to their own conclusions. This is because suggesting change before someone is ready can be damaging. “People might not be ready to think about making changes, and by suggesting one, you are actually pushing them into an uncomfortable place,” says Dressler. “This can make them back away from you as a confidant.”
People who are in distress often feel alone and unheard, especially when dealing with sensitive topics like suicide or abuse. If that’s what your friend is going through, keep in mind that his or her family or other friends may react strongly, or even judgmentally, which makes them feel like no one is really listening. In these cases, it’s important to respond in a non-judgmental way and direct the person to a professional service like the Distress Centre’s crisis line or 211 program to get help.
And don’t think of crisis support as a last resort, says Dressler. It’s a service that’s open to anyone who needs an impartial or non-judgmental perspective, and it can make a huge impact.
It’s CMHA‘s Mental Health Week! We recently reached out to several mental health experts to put together a tip sheet for parents. It can help you recognize some of the signs of mental illness in children and youth and learn more about resources in your community where you can access services and supports.
SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD OR TEEN MIGHT BE STRUGGLING
One of the first signs that your child or teen may be struggling with mental illness? They may start to behave in a way that is unusual or out of character for them. For example, if they used to be quite social and outgoing and they suddenly become more isolated, even refusing to go to school or interact with their peers, this could be a red flag. “You may also notice changes in a child’s appetite or sleeping patterns,” says Myra Levy, Clinical Director at East Metro Youth Services, a United Way-supported agency. “Sometimes mental health concerns, for example depression and anxiety, can also be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event including a divorce, a serious breakup or a death in the family. Your child or teen may tell you that they’re not feeling happy or that they’re having thoughts about suicide.” It’s also important to remember that you are not alone: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them.
WAYS TO GET HELP:
IN AN EMERGENCY
If you suspect your child or teen is at risk of harming themselves or others, and you feel that you’re not able to keep them safe, take them to a hospital emergency department right away, advises Dr. Joanna Henderson, a psychologist and Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH. In less urgent situations, Dr. Henderson also suggests that parents can call United Way-supported Distress Centres for support and advice on other appropriate community or professional resources to help your child. Young people can also call the Kids Help Phone to speak to a counsellor and to learn more about other mental health supports in the community.
Many parents often turn to their family doctor or pediatrician for mental health support. A recent Toronto Star article notes that, according to the Ontario Medical Association, family physicians deliver about half of all mental health services in Ontario. This includes supports such as assessments, therapy and prescribing medication. If your family doctor or pediatrician works as part of a multidisciplinary team, he or she can also refer children and their parents to other healthcare professionals on the team including psychologists, nurse practitioners or social workers. All of these services are typically covered by OHIP when delivered in this setting.
COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH CENTRES
There are also a number of accredited community-based mental health centres, including United Way-supported East Metro Youth Services, where parents and their children can access a range of mental health services. The best way to find a centre near you is to visit Connex Ontario or call United Way-supported 211 for resources in Peel, Toronto and York Region. Some community mental health centres offer walk-in clinics where parents and their children can access help with no doctor’s referral/diagnosis or appointment required. The services provided by these centres are also paid for by the government, private donors and in some cases, supported by organizations including United Way. Additional services range from one-on-one/group counselling sessions to more intensive options including alternative classrooms and residential treatment programs. United Way also invests in a variety of community-based mental health programs that support vulnerable and marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ and homeless youth. Counselling services at community mental health centres are typically provided by professionals with Masters-level designations in social work, psychology or counselling. “Although traditionally there have been wait lists to access psychiatry or community counselling services, walk-in clinics are supporting early access and reduced wait times,” says Alanna Burke, Clinical Manager at East Metro, which is the lead agency for infant, child and adolescent mental health in Toronto. The agency, in partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children piloted a telepsychiatry project and plans to scale up the initiative across the city to connect young people with psychiatrists to provide faster diagnosis.
Many family doctors will also refer parents and their children/teens to specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess and diagnose mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD, among others. They are also licensed to provide therapy and prescribe medication. Although services provided by psychiatrists and other specialists in the publicly-funded system (including hospitals) are covered by OHIP, wait times for doctors can be significant and variable, depending on circumstances, says Henderson. Psychologists, who do not typically require a doctor’s referral, can diagnose mental illness and provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medication. When they work in the publicly-funded system their services are covered by OHIP. While wait lists to see psychologists in private practice can be shorter, the hourly cost to see this type of specialist ranges from approximately $150- $250-per-hour. Henderson says some specialists offer a “sliding scale” of hourly fees for lower-income clients. Specialists such as psychologists and psychiatrists offer a range of therapies for children and teens including cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness—in both an individual and group settings. There are also a small number of school board social workers in school boards in Peel, Toronto and York Region that offer supports to students in a school setting. “As a parent of a child or teen struggling with mental illness, it’s also important to take care of yourself,” adds Henderson. “We know that when families are getting support together, that can really lead to positive outcomes.”