• JM Wesierski

Listening Between the Lines

Updated: Aug 22

We each need to keep an eye on our friends and family whether or not we think they may be struggling with their mental health. Here's how:


Understanding the feelings of each other by what we say is difficult because often times we don’t say what we actually feel, and sometimes what we feel is exactly the opposite of what we say. According the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one out of every five young adults is struggling with mental illness, but as many as half aren't receiving the help they need. Therefore, maybe the best way to understand where someone's at mentally is by learning to interpret them just a little bit better.


This post is about listening to those around you to better understand their mental state. I also recommend checking out my page on speaking about our own feelings even if we don't think anything is wrong because to help other people be comfortable talking about their problems, we must first be comfortable doing so ourselves. Please read all the way through before taking matters into your own hands.


The word listening here is actually a metaphor for paying attention and not only to the words another says but to every piece of information they reveal. Each person's psyche is different. We all have an innumerable number of layers and defenses that even we might not know about. While someone may be aware that they need help and are willing to get it, they may still struggle to produce the words, "Can you help me?" Just like when one's upset their significant other, the words "I'm fine" don't always (or usually) mean they are fine. So, here are a few things to be looking out for that may signal when someone we know is struggling with their mental health.


What is the topic?:

Most signs of mental health issues won't be pervasive throughout every conversation. That is why we must be paying attention to whether our friends and family find certain subjects harder to talk about than others. Five common types of mental illness are mood, anxiety, psychotic, eating, and attention disorders. These can stem from experiences related to school, work, money, relationships, and loneliness among others. These are some common areas that could be impacting the health of the people we care for.


Where are their eyes?

If it's hard for them to look at you when speaking about certain subjects, they may be hiding their real feelings. Lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean they are lying, but we often find it hard to look people in the eyes when we're uncomfortable (such as talking about what's on our mind).


What do they say?


Using short sentences when responding can be a sign of anxious or vulnerable feelings about the topic. When flustered and avoidant we often find it simplest to avoid the truth about our feelings. As well, we find it easiest to lie using as little words as possible, like "fine", "good", or "it's nothing".

Returning to what we've already said gives us a sense of solidarity and protection because we can speak without providing any new information. Therefore, look out for repetition of these words or another go to explanation without any real elaboration when the matter at hand seems remain unresolved.


How do they say it?

While it may be easy to lie through words, how we say those words tends to be more revealing. Faltering, a melancholic tone, or anger when discussing certain subjects are signs of struggling.


How do they act?:

Body language is one of the most revealing, and hardest to control, displays of how we feel. Even so, though paying attention to how our loved ones act while talking to them, try do so when they don't realize they are being watched. We often bite our lips when anxious and cover our mouths when trying to hide emotion. Arms crossed, though may just mean they are cold, is also a sign of defensiveness, and being closed off. Feet, when pointed away from you, is a sign that they probably want to leave the conversation.


Who have they become?


We each have hard days that put us down, and cause us of act in some the ways mentioned above. That is ok! Life is hard, but it's when we find our loved ones displaying these signs often and consistently that we need to be attentive to the idea that they may be having problems. Compare who they are now to who you used to know them as. Warning signs of mental illness according to New Roads Behavioral Health include: social withdrawal, long lasting sadness or irritability, extreme high and low moods, dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits, and excessive fear, worry, or anxiety.


Lastly, while this post is about listening to others, now that you know what to look out for, listen to yourself. If you find yourself doing any of these things often enough, try and confront and talk about the subjects that inhibit you and perhaps even speak to a specialist. How we feel is a subject that most people (especially men) have be trained to avoid talking about, but I guarantee that if you open up at least once, you'll feel more free and confident afterwards.


My next post on mental health will be about how to best bring up concerns with whomever we believe is struggling. Until then most importantly before confronting them, research for yourself how to best approach the topic. Mental Health UK outlines some good ways to do so. If you have any more input on these subjects let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading and don't forget to subscribe to stay update on posts!

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National Alliance on Mental Health: 800-950-NAMI (6264)

Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255

Substance Abuse Line: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)