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  • Writer's pictureAnge Disbury

In and Out of Lockdown:

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Listening to and Learning From Those With Experience of Managing Vulnerable Mental Health

Written by Thrive Women's Network for our community.

*With thanks to Sunflower (Perinatal Mental Health) Family Support Group and each woman who shared her experience *

We asked women from a local mental health support network to share their experiences of the last year. We wanted to spend time listening, knowing that those with months to years of mental health challenges have so much to offer our community. So much that we can learn from, especially with changing restrictions ahead.

Whether it’s shutting down or opening up, change (and the anticipation of it) to our everyday landscape has been a regular feature of the pandemic era. The speed of change has varied between achingly slow and dramatically fast. Our expectations have been shaken and shifted time and time again.

Listening to the women gathered on Zoom to share their thoughts, there was a common acknowledgement of times that felt especially challenging: when there was a loss of a sense of control (at varying levels and stages). “I felt very overwhelmed very quickly and a lot of my usual coping strategies weren’t available to me or had to be adapted,” shared one individual. “I felt a surge of adrenaline which initially helped me, but I struggled more when that wore off” another commented.

What followed was a brilliant discussion of individual responses and adjustments. What struck me was the self-awareness and shared language around mental health. Each experience was different, but the thought and intentionality that had gone into survival strategies and self/community care was a shared feature. Here’s what we heard…

Acknowledge that everyone’s experience is unique

“I’ve had people say to me: I’ve felt low not getting out and now I know what you’ve been through,” one woman shared. With a history of vulnerable mental health requiring professional perinatal mental health support, she said “the danger is that stories get lumped together, generalised or erased.”

The conversation continued with knowing nods. There was a strong sense that tokenism or cries of “mental health” without a listening ear can deafen the individual voices telling important individual experiences.

“It can feel like the term ‘mental health’ can be thrown around in the media rather than carefully dug into,” one woman shared.

Being careful to not assume that having heard one person’s experience, we “know what people need for their mental health” feels really important. It’s holding the individual stories with such care, as precious and valuable things...people, not to be assumed and generalised.

“I’ve had some really special family moments and also felt so desperate for a break” shared one woman. Acknowledging that two seemingly opposed things can be felt at the same time feels really important as we validate people’s experiences.

Listen well and adjust your pace

“I’ve felt most supported when I’ve felt most listened to.” In recognising that there are as many experiences of mental health as there are people, we can’t expect to know what someone needs without first creating space to listen. It’s in this space that a sense of emotional safety is built - a sense of owning your story. Suspending our own ideas and being prepared to change course and really be led by what evolves affirms others’ sense of control. “While I want to re-connect in person with friends and family, I want them to recognise that it’s not a ‘fix all’ strategy. Those opportunities will probably come with new challenges and anxiety for me that will need time and understanding to step in to.”

It is tempting to want to steer people on to a quick path of positivity. If we rush into “fixing mode,” we might miss that the ‘baby blues’ in a new mum might actually be post-natal depression, requiring specialist help. If we push someone into forced positivity, we might miss that there is abuse being perpetrated in a relationship. If we quickly force the doors to community groups wide open for attendance numbers, we might alienate those with the greatest need.

Be led, without forcing

Supporting others’ mental health as restrictions change won’t be about forcing open amenities and gatherings as quickly as possible. It is recognising that we all have our own experiences and individual coping strategies within the changing landscape. Giving people the chance to share their experiences and the opportunity to consider what they need, at what pace and how others can support those needs is essential.

If we have a fixed idea on what will “definitely help,” it may feel like it “does something,” but meaningful support is often unglamorous and slowly sustained. “I’ve felt most supported when people check in, listen and have just been a presence of support.”

Empower (don’t ‘rescue’)

Hearing the women talking about tiny intentional steps that had to be constantly adjusted to remind them of their power and agency was inspiring. “I know I can get so drawn into the news so I had to be really mindful of limiting my news intake” shared one woman. “Going to a bigger supermarket felt like real sensory overload, so I know that when we can get out more I need to be aware of this and not rush myself.”

There is so much to learn from those who have had to manage their mental health with real awareness. When we listen to those with lived experience, we give them power. We affirm their sense of control. When we push on with a pre-determined plan, we take that power and control away.

So, here’s a few questions we could ask ourselves when face to face community things begin to open up:

1. How can we listen well to individuals?

2. Whose voices/experiences are we not hearing?

3. Are we reacting,or truly responding?*

*Warning: this is much slower, feels much less certain and gets much less public credit...

To find out more about the brilliant Sunflower Family Support Group you can go to their website:

Blog by Thrive Women's Network (listening group facilitated by Jude Munday, written by Ange Disbury):

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