Zara Abrams’ recent article, “Conversations are powerful. Here are ways to embrace the awkward and deepen relationships,” provides an optimistic view on the potential of conversations to improve mood, strengthen relationships, and even resolve conflicts.
While the premise is promising, it’s crucial to consider its implications for populations with Severe Mental Illness (SMI).
Universal application: A flawed concept
Abrams discusses the psychology of high-quality conversations and how they can boost our overall well-being. But when we talk about mental health, the “one-size-fits-all” approach has limitations.
The notion that embracing awkwardness in conversations can deepen relationships may not hold for individuals with SMI who struggle with social interactions. For this demographic, awkward situations can exacerbate symptoms or provoke stress rather than provide an opportunity for relational depth.
Many individuals with SMI may struggle with recognising and interpreting social cues, which plays a significant role in the success of any conversation. Social awkwardness can lead to misunderstanding or even conflict. Therefore, advocating for embracing the awkward without offering coping mechanisms for this population is an oversight.
- Social scripts. One technique to navigate social interactions’ complexity is using pre-constructed social scripts. These can help individuals with SMI to anticipate and plan for everyday social situations.
- Exposure therapy. With the guidance of a trained therapist, some individuals may benefit from controlled exposure to social situations that are considered “awkward,” thereby gradually decreasing their anxiety.
- Mindfulness and grounding techniques. In stressful social situations, mindfulness can help individuals become aware of their physiological responses and utilise grounding techniques to manage anxiety.
Importance of established and informed support systems
- Psycho-education for loved ones. Family and friends can be educated on the intricacies of SMI, helping them provide more sensitive and informed support.
- Structured conversations. In some cases, structured therapeutic conversations facilitated by professionals can offer higher support and understanding.
- Technological support. Digital platforms designed with privacy and emotional well-being in mind can act as supplemental support systems.
Unexplored territory: Support system
The article doesn’t touch on the concept of a support system that understands the nuances of mental health. For people with SMI, high-quality conversations may best occur in the context of established, informed relationships rather than spontaneous interactions with acquaintances or strangers.
Mental health stigma and awkward conversations
The idea of embracing awkwardness also does not consider the societal stigma around mental illness. Discussing their condition candidly may not always be liberating for people with SMI; it could lead to rejection or judgement. Therefore, the impact of awkward conversations varies significantly between the general population and those with SMI.
Toward a more inclusive dialogue
- Inclusion of diverse voices. Contributions from those with lived experiences of SMI should be actively sought and included in academic research, public policy debates, and media stories.
- Culturally sensitive approaches. Mental health is experienced differently across various cultural contexts, and these nuances should be included in the broader dialogue.
- Policy change. An inclusive dialogue should influence and be reflected in formulating public policies that effectively support those with SMI.
By taking these multifaceted steps, we can aim for a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of mental health, moving beyond universal applications and embracing the complexity and individuality of each person’s experience. This, in turn, will help us make meaningful strides in mental health discourse and treatment for those grappling with SMI.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.