How to be an Active Listener - OC87 Recovery Diaries

How to be an Active Listener


A rising number of college students are seeking treatment at campus counseling centers for serious mental health challenges. Our colleagues at Active Minds (the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students) share some startling statistics on their website about this population:

39% of students in college experience a significant mental health issue.

50% of cases of mental health issues begin by age 14.

75% of cases of mental health issues begin by age 24.

2/3rds of students with anxiety or depression don’t seek treatment.

And an even harsher statistic:

The second cause of death among students is suicide.

But here’s the hope:

67% of college students first tell a friend that they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.

We know that mental illness is treatable and suicide is preventable. For those who are experiencing challenges and feel they are in a dark place, the first step towards a brighter path may be something as simple as a conversation with a friend.  What an important moment in their journey. And if that friend they speak to is listening deeply—with full attention and free of judgement (and electronic devices!)—possible solutions to what might seem like an unfixable problem may emerge.

To that end, students at the University of Pennsylvania have founded an organization called CogWell@Penn. It’s a peer support network for students that is committed to promoting open and empathic dialogue on campus and fighting the stigma surrounding mental health struggles.

Each semester, CogWell@Penn provides training that prepares and empowers students to effectively support their peers in coping with the pressures of college life.  One of the skills they focus on is simple but mighty: listening. Of course, the students are not professional mental health experts. They are, however, on the “front line” of the friendship zone, and perhaps may be the first ones to notice that a friend is struggling.

Our video features the powerful listeners from Cogwell@Penn. Watch (and learn) how they skillfully role-play as active listeners when presented with a variety of stories from friends in need. These improvs were unscripted, but skillfully executed. Thanks to all who participated in making this film, including mental health professional Barbra Berley-Mellits and Cogwell@Penn advisor Rabbi Ephraim Levin. The super title graphics animation by the mega-talented artist Kees Holterman.


EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

See Related Recovery Stories: Mental Health Short Films

Glenn is an award-winning director who loves to create compelling documentary story experiences of all lengths for screens of all sizes. He is an avid reader, studied literature in college, and his passion for stories with strong characters and interesting narratives stems from those years. His career as a visual storyteller began at WHYY (the public television station in Philadelphia) where he worked for 15 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. In addition to his PBS documentaries about arts and culture, he has directed films about justice and human rights, and now, mental health. He was emboldened to undertake his current documentary project, Hollywood Beauty Salon, a colorful feature-length documentary about surviving mental illness and finding the courage for recovery, after his transformative experience directing OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, along with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston.