The 3 Things We REALLY Need to Start Asking Each Other

How to have the conversation we don’t want to, in a more meaningful & impactful way

Last week I spent time talking to journalists from all over the country about the deaths of despair data I shared in my last post.

I’m not going to reiterate all of that here, as I know it’s a lot of information to take in and, admittedly, it’s not the easiest thing to read or hear about. A good friend also said to me that while the data was all interesting, what was he supposed to do with all that information?

I'm going to address both of these things in this week's post, because one of my greatest takeaways from last week is that especially after all that we’ve endured, it’s not easy to hear that tens of thousands of people are dying by suicide or drug or alcohol abuse. And to make matters even more troubling, tens of thousands of people are dying and the truth is, we can be doing more to prevent it – there is a role for each of us to play, no matter how daunting changing the trajectory of our nation can be.  

For example, when I asked various journalists, “How are you?” I was met with many defeated “OK,” “Fine” and “Good” responses that seemed to suggest otherwise. One person, who I think had been personally impacted by such a loss, thanked me repeatedly for the work I was doing to address this problem. 

In all conversations, I could tell that while journalists’ commitment to telling the stories that needed to be told had them looking forward to our talk, the topic of that conversation was weighing heavy on their hearts just like it was weighing on mine.  

I got to thinking about that a bit more and came across this post by Olivia Messer, a former journalist for The Daily Beast. It was shared and shared again by her fellow journalists all over Twitter, many of them speaking out and saying that they, too, needed to take a break from reporting on the stress and sorrow of the Covid-19 crisis – and earlier this year, the Capitol riot. That was Messer’s tipping point.

My friend Dr. Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, explains in Messer’s article why journalists’ job can be so difficult.  

In short, the best journalists share the things we need to hear – regardless of whether we want to hear them. They listen closely and take a lot of information in – all in service to sharing it later. Because of that, they put themselves in situations that are difficult to wrap their minds around from both a professional and personal standpoint, and then subject themselves to criticism for that work when their words fall on eyes that refuse to accept them.

Words are, indeed, powerful. As we’ve seen in the last year, they can inspire and infuriate, hurt and heal.

How we can do the latter is what I want to focus the rest of this post discussing. Changing the way we talk to one another is one of easiest, most powerful asks – and it’s not something we need to wait on Congress to help us do.

Keeping it simple, here are the three things we should be asking the people with whom we find ourselves conversing – whether they’re journalists, a coworker, or the person standing near us in the checkout line at the grocery store.

HOW ARE YOU, REALLY?

This first question is a slight but significant modification of the question we naturally ask most people we bump into. We often default into asking “How are you?” whenever we initiate a conversation, but going forward, let’s all take pause and put sincerity behind those words. Let’s not be afraid to ask each other “How are you, REALLY?” and be prepared for whatever the answer to that question is. (Reminder: People feel uncomfortable talking about their own mental health, and many times we are equally uncomfortable asking someone else about theirs.)

We often use words like stigma to describe why we aren’t socially more open to talk about mental health. And speaking of stigma, this first question was actually the name of a campaign to fight stigma introduced by Kenneth Cole last year via the Mental Health Coalition he created, of which Well Being Trust is a partner. He had celebrities record themselves honestly answering the question “How are you, REALLY?” during the earlier days of Covid-19 pandemic, in an effort to encourage others to do so in their everyday life.

WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU?

Yet another new, celebrity-laden effort provides a good indication of what could happen after you ask that first question. In Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry’s new Apple TV docuseries, The Me You Can’t See, Harry, Lady Gaga, NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Langston Galloway and more share the struggles they’ve experienced. Their stories are real, and in some respects, their stories are hard to listen to …

… but just like the many journalists who kept pushing through that personal desire to stop listening and kept asking questions, each and every one of us need to do the same. When someone shares a story that’s deeply personal and perhaps even disturbing, it’s our innate, moral responsibility to next say, “What can I do for you?”

Sometimes, the short-term answer is to just stay. To sit there in the moment no matter how hard – no matter the silence. Presence is a powerful tool and being there for someone, even if there’s nothing you can do beyond that, can be healing – and maybe exactly what someone needs in a moment of despair.

WHAT CAN WE DO TOGETHER?

After a year of necessary physical distancing, we definitely have a newfound appreciation for the power of proximity – to be close to those we love, those we can support, and those who can support us. But eventually, when we have these conversations, there has to come an end to that sitting, standing, or screen-sharing. It’s just imperative that it not be abrupt – giving someone a hug and saying, “It will be OK,” or “I’m here for you,” or “Call me anytime,” are all nice gestures and sentiments that can be made many more times impactful when paired with a question like “What can we do together?”

“What can we do together?” is an interesting question that could come with an interesting answer. Maybe the first place someone’s mind goes is “Well, I think I need help. Can you help me find someone?” but only in moments of rock-bottom kind of crises do people usually get there themselves. So – while you should of course connect anyone who tells you they are struggling to resources like the Crisis Text Line (Text HOME to 741741) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1800-273-8255) – don’t be surprised if you hear something like “Do you want to go get ice cream next week?” or “Can you come over for dinner on Friday?” Coming up with a plan that gives someone something to look forward to can change the outlook of their entire week.

It could change yours, too. As our U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, wrote so eloquently in his book, Together: “service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds—checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.”  

Asking these three key questions – something I’m trying to make a more conscious effort to ask in my daily life – is something I hope you choose to do. In helping someone else, you might just find you’ve helped yourself, and at the end of the day, not all changes for our nation’s mental health will come through robust policy alone.

Sometimes, the most powerful things we can do as individuals in our communities is to sincerely ask the question “How are you, REALLY?”, be there for the response, and then do something about that response together.

After all, we are all in this together.