Today: Sidewalk 'Listening Teams' Lend An Ear To Promote Mental Health Awareness

At 11:30 this morning, teams of trained therapists and empathic listeners will appear on the streets of San Francisco to promote mental health. Instead of coaxing people onto a comfortable couch, these encounters will occur in the open air at nine locations, part of a community listening project that occurs each May to promote Mental Health Awareness Month.

Last year, psychotherapists Traci Ruble and Lily Sloane created Sidewalk Talk, "where we sit out on streets and listen to people about anything," said Ruble. Sloane has since departed to focus on her podcast, A Therapist Walks Into A Bar, but Ruble, who practices in San Francisco, continues to promote mental health street outreach.

Sidewalk Talk co-founder Traci Ruble. (Photo: Sidewalk Talk/Facebook)

"It originally started to de-stigmatize mental illness, but it's really grown to include non-therapists to bridge that empathic divide and bring human relating back in style," said Ruble.

"I have had so many clients in a sea of people walk into my office and tell me how lonely they are," she said. "They're depressed and anxious because they're not connected to anyone."

Despite being squeezed nose-to-backpack on streetcars and buses, many San Franciscans feel quite alienated. Economic stress, long working hours and commutes and shifts to social media enhance that sense of solitude, said Ruble.

"I love using Facebook, but I think what happens is that we prioritize that digital connection," said Ruble. "Wouldn't it be great if that digital connection could then lead to an interpersonal connection where I'm sitting eyeball to eyeball with you, seeing your facial expression, your body language and can actually listen to you on many different levels?"

Sidewalk Talk held its first listening event last May in San Francisco, but volunteers have since held events in 10 other cities. Yesterday, there was a Sidewalk Talk event in Portland, with another following tomorrow at locations around Los Angeles. Chicago, Denver, Seattle, New York and several other metros are planning to launch their own versions, said Ruble.

"The first event, we had two or three listeners per location," said Ruble, who's now trying to raise that to four people. This morning, some locations will have as many as eight listeners on hand.

"Eighty percent of our volunteers are psychotherapists and psychologists, and the remainder get some logistical training, safety training and some empathy skills training about listening to people on the street," Ruble added. It may seem daunting, but getting people to open up about their hopes and dreams to a stranger on the sidewalk is a straightforward process, she said.

"We have signs, we dance around, we smile, but what's helped me most when I'm out there is to sit down," said Ruble. "I hate when I walk by someone on the street and they kind of harass me about money for a cause, but sometimes we have to honor people where they are."

For Ruble, getting someone to engage is the ultimate goal, but she also believes there's an impact on people who'll see the project through the window of a passing Uber.

Sidewalk Talk team on Market St. in 2015. (Photo: Sidewalk Talk/Facebook)

"So many people will walk by and smile and say, 'that is cool,'" said Ruble. "And then they go home, and maybe they'll listen better to their teen that night, because they'll remember the impression."

Since starting Sidewalk Talk, Ruble has started doing listening sessions on the second Wednesday of each month at Church & Market. "Now, I'm a better parent," said Ruble. "When you actually sit down and see how someone is when they're being listened to, their faces light up."

This year, Sidewalk Talk team members began keeping track of the number of people they've reached on the street who have decided to seek additional mental health services. "To date, we've listened to about 400 people across the US, and 25 of those 400 have been referred to mental health services," said Ruble.

In recent weeks, Sidewalk Talk officially obtained non-profit status; so far, fundraising takes the form of online T-shirt sales. "It's really taking off," said Ruble, who said the program has led to some positive outcomes.

"One of my favorites was someone who had just gotten a text from his girlfriend who broke up with him literally minutes before," she said. "He just sat down in my chair and said, 'Man, it feels really great to be able to talk about this right here, right now.'"

"That was pretty great," said Ruble.

See the map above to find a Sidewalk Talk location today. On the second Wednesday of each month, Traci Ruble does community listening at the corner of Church & Market from 11:30am to 1:30pm.

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Today sidewalk listening teams