2 Key Habits of Mental Health Counselors that We All Need to Put into Practice

On the 10th September, we are reminded that a person dies of suicide every 40 seconds, commemorating World Suicide Prevention Day.

On the 10th October, we will be reminded that mental health issues are a part of reality and we need to be aware of them, not take them lightly. It will be World Mental Health Day.

On the 3rd September, my friends and I, as our school’s Mental Health Ambassadors, attended a Suicide Prevention workshop, organized by Befrienders, a Malaysian NGO and helpline that offers emotional support and promotes psychological well-being.

As a psychology undergrad student, the topics surrounding suicide, depression, anxiety and the likes were nothing new to me. As one trained in mental health first aid, immediate interventions regarding psychological distress were also not novelties. As a current mental health counselling student (taking it as an elective this very semester), the workshop was more of a refreshing aspect than anything else. Yet.

Yet, this workshop still made a significant difference in my perspectives regarding mental health awareness.

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In my ethics class, I learnt that it is not appropriate to professionally counsel friends and family. This is mainly because of biases that could arise and be harder to control, eventually interfering with and slowing down the treatment. In my mental health first aid training, I was primarily taught to identify people in psychological distress and how to approach them and help them. However, the workshop made me fully realise that one does not have to be clinically depressed to need help. Everyone has issues, whether big or small, and they should all be treated with respect and concern. This is what mental health awareness (including suicide prevention) is all about: all feelings matter, whether it’s frustration at work or trauma from abuse.

Mental health is everywhere; thus I’d like to share with you the 2 main skills that I always get to learn in such workshops and in psychology class and that I believe everyone, regardless of your background, should know and apply in their social relationships at all times (whether your friend is in good mental health or not):

1. Listen actively.

You might be surprised but the majority of people don’t know how to listen. Listening is way more than simply lending an ear to a friend. You don’t only listen with your ears, but with your body language.

For example, lean forward, sit next to the person instead of directly in front (so as to not make it confrontational), nod in acknowledgement, make appropriate eye contact to let them know that you are concerned.

Try not to interrupt, except to use encouragers, such as ‘hmm’s and ‘oh’s, ‘okay’s and ‘alright’s. Moreover, it’s better to focus your attention on what the person is saying instead of thinking about what your reply should be (yes, you do that sometimes, right?).

2. Empathize.

Empathy is basically trying to put yourself into someone’s shoes. This is how you can reply after listening, by empathizing: no, it’s not about giving advice (in fact, in the counseling world, it is unethical to give advice, as advice can feel like one is imposing biased views on them), rather it’s about:

i) paraphrasing what they said: this is where you show them that you did genuinely lend an ear, and…

ii) reflecting their feelings: i.e. identifying what they are actually feeling as they tell you their story and telling it to them. Are they frustrated? Stressed out? Scared?

This is how you can make someone feel understood, and this can potentially lead them to feeling less lonely. Indeed, you don’t have to have had the same experiences to empathize. It is all about paying attention, and not jumping to conclusions. 

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Frankly, these little things can be applied outside of the mental health counselling world and into our everyday life. Being a better listener and empathetic person can lead to stronger friendships and relationships in all areas! This is also how we can become better and kinder as human beings.

Since that workshop, I am slowly getting there. Of course, it’s not easy, because many of us tend to take family and friends for granted. But they have feelings too. They get hurt, just like us. And these feelings should not be dismissed, or joked about.

So, listen empathetically. This is the first step to spreading mental health and suicide prevention awareness. And the best part is, anyone can do it.

An Evil Nymph.

 

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