Talks with Strangers: Perspectives on Mental Health pre-covid19

Nicholas H

One of my favourite things to do pre-covid19 was going to events about writing, mental health, black mental health or being a creative. I went because events like this keep me going. They keep me inspired. They keep me abreast regarding mental health topics. And most of all, I get to see the faces of people who struggle with mental health, their loved ones and those who want to help.

Since we can no longer gather, I thought I would bring the best content of past events to readers. I take meticulous notes and aim to grab the best quotes & info from each event.

On February 25, I attended “Tuesday Talks with Strangers: Perspectives on Mental Health”, a series held at Toronto’s Staples Studios Spotlight space, a part of their larger co-working space.

Organized by volunteers, the evening included the following panelists: Lisa Schwartz, Registered Social Worker & Clinical Therapist at Shift Collab and Nikita Andreev, friend of an individual with lived experience

“The best way to get rid of stigma is talking to each other and building community. Especially with people with lived experience,” event organizer Nicholas H. introduces the evening.

Nikita Andreev & Lisa Schwartz

Andreev discusses “Perspective” by Jay Doodnauth, a film he worked on. “The film gives attention to mental health in minority communities.”

Andreev also discusses his close friend who died by suicide. “We had no idea. Now that I look back there were signs. He had been trying to find help.” Andreev believes if his friend was able to open up they may have been able to help him. He notes that not everyone is close enough with their families to confide in them and that’s where friends come into the picture. However, he reminds us that at the end of the day we can only support our friends and family, and help them get help. We can’t take responsibility for them.”

Together, Andreev and Schwartz discussed the following important points regarding mental health, suicidal ideation, potential signs and dos and don’ts of supporting someone.

  • Everyone has a had a thought about suicide. It is not an uncommon passing thought, especially in youth.
  • It’s important to recognize the signs. Suicide is not necessarily an impulsive act.
  • An important question to ask about is planning. Do they have plans?How would they do it?
  • Everyone’s threshold is different. You have to pay attention to the person and know who they are (i.e. a social person becoming antisocial may be a sign)
  • Risk factors:
    • Males, youth (second leading cause of death), socially isolated, time in jail, trauma, ADHD etc.
    • They tend to be more compulsive.
    • Suicide contagion – if someone in your group dies by suicide. If the person is already a struggling and has a history of attempts or family members who have passed by suicide
    • Combine any of these together and the odds are increased

“It’s important to recognize the signs. Suicide is not necessarily an impulsive act.”

  • Having these conversations is easier said then done. Just ask. You likely won’t be planting ideas in their head, they’ve likely already had these thoughts. Just asking can show someone that you care. If nobody asks the person could wonder, “Does no one else care or notice?” Be factual, “I’ve noticed you’ve been canceling plans.” It’s about knowing facts and pointing them out. Or just giving them space to share.
  • You have to ask directly, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
    • People are scared to ask but you asking makes it okay to discuss. It makes them feel like it’s okay and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed. If it’s not the case then great. If they answer yes, ask more questions about intent, plans or thoughts. Find help if it’s planned.
    • By telling them, “Everyone loves you etc.” You’re not validating their feeling. In the moment that’s how they feel, make sure not to dismiss how they feel.
    • “Name it to tame it.” Shed shame. Just naming it and acknowledging it can take away the shame. And make it okay to discuss.
Nikita Andreev & Lisa Schwartz

It’s really tempting to want to jump in and give advice, it’s our natural tendency, especially for someone we love. But sometimes that’s not helpful.

Make sure you emotionally validate them. Make them feel heard and understood. For example, “I can see why you would feel that way.” It’s not about agreeing with what they say. Together you can then make a rational next step.

It’s all about the value of just listening. If they ask for help, brainstorm together and come up with a plan. It’s not going to be just one conversation. You have to first plant the seed. They know now it’s safe to come back to you. The most important thing is to have that first conversation.

Be realistic about what you can do and how you can help them. That you have your own supports!

Overall, it was a very enjoyable evening! I had the chance to chat with Nicholas, Lisa and Nikita, who were all lovely to meet and get to know a bit more. Part of the evening was dedicating to audience activity. They asked us to find two people w didn’t know and discuss a prompt they provided. For instance, “What would make it hard for you to talk to someone (friend, family or coworker etc.) about their mental health?”

It was really inspiring to see different types of people gathered because they wanted to broach the topic of mental health, including those in the audience, the volunteers and speakers. It gave me comfort to know I’m not alone when it comes to battling mental illness and there are those who want to be allies.

Read about my book here. Coming this spring!

Read “Why I wrote A Hidden Life” here.

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Content on this website may be triggering, please call 911 or go to the nearest hospital if you feel you are in a mental health crisis.

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