Today (16 January 2017) is dubbed 'Blue Monday', the day when the dark dreariness of the post-Christmas and New Year period begins to take its toll. Weather conditions, the realisation of post-Christmas debts and the inevitable sluggishness after the over-indulgence of the festive season, combine to make the middle of January very difficult.
This combination of factors can leave people feeling depressed and anxious about their situation in life. For most this anxiety will quickly pass, but others can move from anxiety, to depression and more serious mental health issues.
We're rightly encouraged to talk about our feelings when we're experiencing difficulty. It can often be the first step to dealing with whatever the problem is and preventing it from escalating. However, for talking to be effective we need someone to listen. So why don't we make this year's Blue Monday a day of listening?
Effective listening can be really helpful to other people. It's about focusing on the other person. It's not about offering advice on what to do - but actively listening to what they're saying. Not just hearing the words, but taking in what the words mean for that person; helping them to reflect and understand what the key issues are. It's helpful to remind ourselves about the importance of open questions - sometimes called 5WH - who, what, where, when, why and how. For example: "how do you feel?", "what would you like to do?", or "how can I help you?".
Taking time out to give a friend or colleague your undivided attention, even for just 15 minutes, can make all the difference. When I was Principal at Hackney Community College, we used to hold a college event on World Mental Health Day where we encouraged students and staff to take time out just to listen to other people.
The number of students suffering from mental ill-health is increasing, according to an Association of Colleges survey. NHS specialist mental health services for both young people and adults are already stretched. I wonder what difference we could make in preventing the escalation of mental health issues, if we just listened to that person sooner rather than later? If that person felt, right at the moment they started to suffer, that someone would listen to them with all the necessary focus, would they seek help before the situation got out of hand?
Listening skills are vital in life, but it's very easy to fall out of practise in using them. We're all bombarded with information, distracted by news and our own concerns. People frequently find themselves not really paying attention to the person with whom we're supposed to be in conversation. How often do you find yourself checking your emails or looking at social media when you're out with friends? With your attention focused away from that friend, are you missing the point they're trying to make? Is that friend trying to communicate something that is vital to them and you're not hearing?
Instead of allowing Blue Monday to epitomise doom and gloom, let's take ownership of the 'most depressing day of the year' and make it the day we pledge to give our friends, family and work colleagues 15 minutes of our undivided attention to really listen to them. So switch off the TV, close down social media and put down your smartphone. Focus on the person in front of you and by doing this, a friend could go from Blue Monday to feeling in the pink.