Your Communication Skills in the World of Mental Health

Since the days of President Reagan, the United States has changed its policies toward the treatment of those with mental health conditions. Back then, facilities providing care were closed. Those who couldn’t cope with society and its demands often received little treatment. These human beings ended up at best living in a community with families trying their best to deal with an unending problem, or at worst, living on the street or in prison.

As a professional or a family member, there are ways in which you can help bridge the communication gap to assure that you and the disabled person can hear and understand each other. Diminishing both fear and paranoia are critical in this line of communication.

Many of the techniques are subtle and don’t need explanation; in fact, the explanation can only increase the failure to be heard. Here are a few of these techniques. They can be used in any difficult situation and with nearly every true case of organic mental health or intellectual disability.

  • Give some eye contact but unbroken contact; shift your gaze from time to time. This will make you both more comfortable.
  • Make your gaze casual and your eyes soft. Intensity can be viewed as threatening and highly suspicious.
  • Stand, not in a square position, but slightly sideways. A squared body position can make you seem larger than you are, and can be viewed as prepared for confrontation.
  • Never point directly at the person to make your point, or make your hands into a fist. Rather, speak whenever it seems appropriate with your hands open and palms up. This demonstrates that you understand and are more sharing of power.
  • If the person is repeating a statement over and over, it is important to acknowledge this by repeating what the individual is saying. This does not mean they are correct in their way of thinking, and you do not want to give that impression. You are not affirming their suspicious thoughts; you are merely acknowledging that you heard them.
  • If you are setting a meeting with this individual for some reason, provide them with several dates and times and allow them to select from these options. You are assuring a meeting, but allowing the person to feel a sense of control.
  • Ask how the person wants the communication to occur. Do they prefer a phone call, an email or a written letter? Again, this provides options, and options appear to share power.
  • Mirror their position when seated. If the person sits very upright or somewhat rigid, if there is closer positioning ( for example, across a table) or if the person is sitting back and very relaxed.