A group of volunteers, mostly consisting of therapists, is trying something new to get people in Austin to communicate with each other more.
The idea is called Sidewalk Talk and anyone can walk by one of their events and sit down to chat about anything they want.
A couple years ago, two psychotherapists in San Francisco came up with the idea to set up chairs on the sidewalk and offer to listen to strangers for free.
It quickly spread to other cities like Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, D.C., and now Austin.
Wednesday, a group of chairs on the Congress Avenue sidewalk quickly filled up with people stopping to share their thoughts with total strangers.
“A lot of times we don't have people to talk to who offer the gift of true listening,” said Larry Johnson who stopped to talk to Sidewalk Talk volunteers Wednesday.
It was the first time Sidewalk Talk set up camp on a busy street in Austin and the event was well received by people from all walks of life downtown.
“We’re getting more people stopping than we thought we would,” said licensed psychologist and Sidewalk Talk Austin City Coordinator Candice Ackerman.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports about 18 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of mental health disorder. About half of them do not seek treatment for their condition.
Sidewalk Talk volunteers hope to take away some of the fear that keeps millions of Americans from turning to therapy.
“To work around mental health and the stigma around mental health, so, by having people out on the street that are just everyday people talking about their problems, we're hoping to kind of break that stigma,” Ackerman said.
But it's not considered sidewalk therapy; instead the premise is much simpler, talk and be heard.
“It was very helpful because, actually, a total stranger that doesn't know me, who hasn't formed opinions, was able to sit down, look me in my eye and hear what I had to say. And that in and of itself made me feel comfortable to continue to talk, to continue to open up,” said Johnson.
When it was first introduced to people in San Francisco, there was another goal too.
“Usually, on the sidewalks, people are usually looking down at their phones, they're on their earbuds and they're not paying attention to the world around them. So we're trying to bring back human connection and to bring that humanity back,” Ackerman said.
“We don't engage one another, we don't know one another anymore, we're afraid of one another, we isolate, we're aloof and that kills our humanity, it kills our spirit, it kills our country,” said Johnson.
After offering to listen to strangers on one of Austin’s busiest streets, Sidewalk Talk hopes to inspire others to reach out and strike up a conversation.
“This should be on every corner in America,” Johnson said.
Sidewalk Talk Austin is still looking for volunteers. They said most of their volunteers are therapists, but they do offer training for non-professionals.
They want to hold an event every other week in the Austin area.
Visit Sidewalk Talk Austin on Facebook for a schedule of events.