‘Deep listening’ provides vital community healing in tough times and moments of despair
Suicides are soaring among young South Africans — as the economy declines. The public health system can’t meet mental health demands, but Community Listeners are achieving amazing success.
Young people in South Africa are forced to endure such adverse socioeconomic conditions that it is affecting their mental health to a dangerous degree. The statistics speak for themselves.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 29-year-olds, while the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) records that 9% of teenage deaths in the country are due to suicide.
Public clinics and hospitals are unable to cope with the scale of the need for mental health interventions. When admitted into the overburdened and under-capacitated hospital system, young people presenting with anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies are often retraumatised: they are surrounded by unstable adults and treated through drugs alone. Lack of support also leads to self-medication, with sleeping pills at night and diet pills to stay awake in the day. This locks them into a cycle of drug dependency and abuse. With nowhere to turn for assistance and ever-decreasing hope for their futures, it is not surprising that suicide rates among township youth are soaring.
There are alternatives to this broken and dysfunctional medical model. Our organisation, Breaking Beliefs, has been employing a modality which is showing very positive results. This is deep listening, an ancient and completely underrated healing approach.
It is encouraging that listening has recently been adopted by a few forward-thinking organisations. One such initiative is the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe, where, in the absence of conventional psychosocial support, grandmothers are trained to provide listening services to community members dealing with overwhelming life challenges.
The initiative has been amazingly successful, with a documented decrease in suicide rates in communities where there are Friendship Benches. Similarly, we at Breaking Beliefs are using deep listening and gentle enquiry to encourage young people to let go of their limiting beliefs, express their painful emotions and access their true strength.
In partnership with YearBeyond, the Western Cape government’s youth service programme and a number of community-based organisations, Breaking Beliefs has set up a Community Listening project training 100 young Neets (not in employment education or training) in the art of deep listening and deploying them to offer listening sessions in communities where psychosocial support is almost non-existent.
One of the most exciting Community Listening projects is being piloted in the Victim Friendly Rooms in five SAPS stations in Philippi, Nyanga, Somora, Gugulethu and Mfuleni, some of the most dangerous crime-infested townships in Western Cape. Here, our young listeners are first responders, offering a safe space for victims of crime and violence and giving them an opportunity to tell their stories.
In a country like South Africa where many people are experiencing endemic trauma, we need listening. Listening and being listened to has a deeply healing and connective effect. The beneficiaries of the listening feel seen, heard and affirmed as they unburden themselves, thereby gaining perspective.
For most people, being listened to sadly happens very rarely. As an old man told his young Community Listener tearfully after his first session, “I feel as though no one has ever listened to me before.” He has been attending a session with her every week, pouring out his heart and reporting that he feels lighter every time.
Young recipients report similar effects, feeling like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders after a listening session. For the young Community Listeners, experiencing the effect of their services on the recipients builds their confidence, a sense of purpose and communication skills.
In a world where most of us listen only to get our own word in, these young people are developing a rare skill that is in much demand and gives them an edge in both personal and professional settings.
The Community Listening Project has attracted keen interest among stakeholders working with beneficiary groups facing multiple psycho-social challenges. It is seen as a potentially sustainable intervention providing much-needed relief to people unable to access the one-on-one support that is so supportive and in such short supply.
It also provides a life-changing year of working experience for the Community Listeners, who, with the unique training and the ongoing support of their colleagues and our coaches, are providing healing where it is needed most.
We all need to be heard and most of us cannot afford the luxury of going to a therapist when life gets too much for us. Imagine a country with thousands of trained Community Listeners who can bring relief and hope to anyone who wants to be heard. DM
Lisa Garson is the director of Breaking Beliefs.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.