How long will it last?
How long will it take to kick in?
How long will we have to wait?
How long will I feel this way?
How long is the wait list?
How long is the treatment?
How long do the effects last?
How long will I have to deal with this?
How long will the pain last?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been concentrating on the questions that I hear when it comes to mental illness and recovery. It seems that many of the questions start with two potentially dangerous words: “how” and “long”. When separate, they are small, unassuming, and harmless. But when combined, they can be detrimental to the way that we see ourselves, our loved ones, and others.
In society, we are completely controlled by time. We live by it – we are bound by it. Expiration dates, deadlines, itineraries, meetings, alarm clocks… you get the picture. So it follows that, when we’re experiencing a mental illness either directly or indirectly, we expect time to be a driving factor. Unfortunately, Father Time does not concern himself with the mental health community.
When I hear these types of questions my heart sinks. Because almost every time, I know the answer is going to be “it depends”, “I don’t know”, or “every case is different”. It can be crushing when you finally have the chance or courage to ask a question about what you’re going through and all you get back is the equivalent to your parents saying “because I said so” when you were young. It adds ambiguity, confusion and frustration to an already difficult situation. As humans, we want and often need definitive answers. We want timelines, we want numbers; we want ‘yes’s and ‘no’s, ones and zeroes. When we ask, “How long…?” we want to hear a definitive number, plain and simple. We have a lot of trouble living in the grey.
There are already so many unknowns when it comes to mental health that I think it might be valuable for us to re-evaluate the ways in which we search for answers as well as how we give them. In a consulting course, I learned that when someone asks you a question that you aren’t sure how to answer, you should first ask them the reasoning behind their question and what value it would bring to get an answer. I found this incredibly eye-opening. Everyone asks a question for a reason, so why not create a more meaningful and beneficial dialogue by asking to hear that reason? It helps you better answer the question, of course, but it also helps the person asking it uncover why they feel they need an answer and what the benefit will be.
A little complicated, I know, but I think the results can be pretty astonishing for both sides. It can be beneficial to think about the true reasons behind your questions and if there is a better way to ask them… or if the answer that you may receive is going to help or hinder you. Conversely, when someone reaches out to you and asks you a “how long” type of question, take a moment before you jump in and give them the old “because I said so” approach. Try asking them a question instead, helping them to understand where they are coming from and what they are actually searching for. It will help you give them the answer, support, or reassurance that they are truly in need of, which can often be buried in a sentence that starts with “how” and “long”. I think it may just lead to a more powerful dialogue that has the potential to leave both parties feeling a little less lost in the grey.
About Kathryn Christie
As an HR Consultant with a deep passion for Mental Health, Kathryn spends her days pushing paper and her nights volunteering with the Canadian Mental Health Association as a co-facilitator of the Family and Caregiver Education program. Her passion extends beyond the realm of her volunteer work which has brought her to Healthy Minds Canada to share stories, support and inspiration with her community.