Listen up for good

Posted: June 02, 2014

WHEN I HEARD about "I Will Listen," I thought the event was a joke. Not because it's funny.

But because it'll be held here.

I mean, Philly is home to so many trash-talking sports mooks, blabbermouth politicians and bloviating yakkers, it doesn't seem like we even know how to listen. Or, rather, how to listen without judgment, which is what the event promises.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Philly, founded on the Quaker virtues of tolerance and bearing witness, is actually the perfect host for "I Will Listen": a one-day event designed to destigmatize mental illness so that those who need help won't be too ashamed, scared or uninformed to get it.

Maybe, in the process, we'll all understand each other better, no matter what our mental state.

How nice would that be?

To be held Tuesday at LOVE Park, "I Will Listen" will function as a health fair with an irresistible social-media twist:

Participants can record a short video declaring a willingness to listen, without judgment, to anyone who needs an ear. Their pledges will be uploaded to a website that directs viewers to mental-health resources.

Organizers hope that if enough of these pledges go pinging around Facebook, Twitter and the like, they'll change the tone of public discourse about mental illness from fear and derision to compassion and help.

"We need a better conversation around mental health," says Joe Pyle, executive director of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, which is co-sponsoring the event.

"One in four people are diagnosed with a mental illness in a given year. It impacts everyone - their families, friends and co-workers - yet mental illness doesn't get the public attention that other diseases and disorders do. This is an attempt to get the whole city to become open to the fact that people around them might be suffering but are afraid to admit it."

If "I Will Listen" sounds familiar, that's because it's been in the ether since last fall. It was launched as an ad campaign by the New York City Metro chapter of the National Association on Mental Illness. Research had shown that people were not accessing the association's resources because the stigma of mental illness kept them from admitting they needed help.

Prominent and everyday New Yorkers recorded their own "I Will Listen" videos, which were posted on the association's website and aired in the New York area. Some of those announcements are circulating in Philly (and new ones have been recorded starring Mayor Nutter, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Behavioral Health Commissioner Arthur Evans and others).

The videos are powerful reminders that the simple act of listening - without judgment - can save lives.

If only it didn't ask so much of us, Sharon Browning says.

"Suspending judgment is one of the hardest things to do," says Browning, a lawyer, arbitrator and founder of JUST Listening, which trains everyone from nonprofit workers to corporate bigwigs on ways to forge change through better listening. "We listen to others through hundreds of filters," three of which present the biggest obstacles to effective listening.

The first is that we're always filtering what we hear through the content of our own minds. We're just not aware of it.

"The more frenzied we become, the less mindful we are that we're judging," Browning says.

The second filter is our own sociocultural experiences, which we presume are everyone else's, too. If we don't suspend that belief and develop true curiosity about the person we're listening to, we won't really hear them.

The third is all about ego - the need to put ourselves in either a superior or inferior position to the person we're listening to. We either think that we know all the answers or should know them, and that blocks us from listening to others in a way that lets them get to their own answers.

"Good listening opens a space into which people pour their stories and then see what emerges," Browning says. "It's exciting."

And when it's used to help those with mental illness feel willing to seek the help they need to get better, it's priceless, Arthur Evans says.

"Reducing stigma is a major component in our public-health approach to mental illness," says Evans, commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, which is co-sponsoring Tuesday's event.

" 'I Will Listen' takes anti-stigma efforts to a new level."


"I Will Listen" will be held at LOVE Park, 16th Street and JFK Boulevard, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday. Info: www.iwilllisten.org/philly.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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