A Big Dose of Empathy

By November 4, 2014Blog

In an effort to continue the conversation, today – Election Day – I am going to dare detangle the makings of the ideal political candidate who will advocate for mental health wellness, on many levels.

Tough call – not just because of the myriad matters of import on the global table, but the vast level of understanding one must have to align with mental health to implement true social change.

As an advocate for mental health awareness, ending stigma and the misunderstandings around mental illness is an important matter for me. I’m going to look at candidates running for office with a watchful eye on this front.

But let’s face it – there are so many issues voting citizens stand behind that the idea of a well-educated candidate who’s truly committed to understanding the broad range of mental health diagnose might seem rare – or is it?

Recently, I became a recipient of the Mass Health benefit – part of the new national healthcare system. There are kinks that need to be worked out and change takes hardship and time, but catch this: behavioral health is not included in the package but is rather a separate “arm” of Mass Health offerings that often takes many months to acquire. This simple fact alone made me yes – scared out of my skin, but also helped me realize that there’s a distinct overall ignorance of the realities of mental health illness from the top down.

How can mental health not be part of basic medical care? Herein lies the rub: there’s a lack of understanding or maybe basic societal fear in accepting that our heads are attached to our bodies and mental health doesn’t require the same level of treatment of say cancers, strokes or aneurisms, to name a few? To witness the rights of those with a mental health diagnoses being categorized as an “arm” obtained with difficulty within a general health care option is appalling to me and those in this community. How could this happen, I thought?

Politically, I believe it goes back to the basic fact that there are too many issues on the table. How are potential politicians going to have a true understanding of the basic principles of mental health unless they themselves have a diagnoses or someone they know manages one. As inferred, that’s not a far flung reach – if one in four people manage a mental health diagnoses, the percentages are good that everyone has some first-hand experience with mental illness. Here’s where it gets tricky – it seems to me.  That understanding “mental health” then becomes the face of that person’s personal understanding and not the reality of a broad array of diagnoses that run the gamut from one end of the mental health spectrum to the other.

And I understand. I manage a bipolar I diagnoses. There was a time that I honestly could not conjure up sympathy for people who would say they were struggling with anxiety or maybe a mild depression. I was young, afraid of my own issues and didn’t have the time to invest in understanding anyone’s diagnoses but my own. It would be like someone with brain cancer saying to someone with serious skin melanomas – oh pashaw: you have no clue.

So what should we do? I vote we study the concept of empathy.

I heard a lecture on the topic once by a well-known scholar. It was the first time I understood the gift of empathy, and I was well into my 20’s at the time. It’s a word volleyed around more often now, but I wonder if people practice true empathy. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as: “(n) noun: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings”.

Having empathy, it seems to me, is conjuring up personal experience and appreciation for a situation by recalling experiences and/or feelings of your own. Easier said than done, but it’s the level of kindness and compassion we can have for each other if we choose to listen and only ask questions when learning about a person’s situation – their life. Their description is going to trigger a thought that will enable better relation to the situation. This is a brand of empathy.

So guess what? A person’s symptoms of anxiety, for example, I now know are just as frightening to them as memories of my manic episodes have been for me.

Bombarded with thousands of social and fiscal issues, any politician is going to pick their platform based on their personal reality and constituent needs. But if that politician also has the basic principal of empathy covered, they’re going to better understand things like the spectrum of mental health, the import of overall health care and how to eradicate stigma by talking candidly about mental health and wellness in general.

I urge you to know your local selectman, council people, state representative and senators – and even lobby at the state and national levels.

As advocates of mental health wellness and fair treatment, we too, should have some empathy for all others – including our politicians. Through education and better understanding why maintaining the conversation is of such great import, change will eventually happen.

Here’s to humanity.

Leave a Reply