By Kelly Carr
In August when news broke that beloved actor Robin Williams had committed suicide, many of us were aghast. Though we didn’t know him personally, his fun manner made it feel like we did. Yet we didn’t know the struggles that lurked beneath his exuberant personality.
Something this tragedy brought to the forefront was more open conversation about depression and other mental health concerns. I witnessed friends being willing to share publicly about their own struggles and pain.
For so long it seemed (or still seems) taboo to admit to having mental health issues. The fear of others’ reactions when disclosing such information causes many people to shy away from getting help. I hope we can break down the fear, shame, and stereotypes to recognize that mental illness is like physical illness—people don’t choose to have it, and they need help to move forward.
A Great Place to Start
I’d venture to say that most of us can pinpoint a time in our lives when we could have used some support for our own mental strains. We have all felt grief, stress, or anxiety on some level. If those times were difficult for us to maneuver, then we can try to imagine what life is like for people with larger and more long-lasting diagnosed illnesses. Although we may never fully grasp what they are going through, we can empathize.
I asked Rachel McCoy, a clinical counselor with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, what advice she would give to those of us who want to be the most encouraging when others are facing mental health concerns.
Rachel said, “Because mental health issues can be so hard to understand for those who have not experienced it on a personal level, I find the most helpful thing is empowered empathy. Empathy is feeling with people rather than feeling for people. It’s a willingness to listen despite not understanding. It’s creating a space free of judgment for people to enter into, knowing they are accepted.
“Many times there is no perfect response or perfect prescription to help people, and where lots of folks make mistakes is by telling those who are suffering with mental illness what they should be doing instead. All these shoulds end up doing is furthering the despair of those who are suffering. So the most important thing is to take the time to try and understand, to listen without trying to give a solution, and to say things like, ‘I can’t imagine what that must be like for you, but I’m so glad you told me about it.’”
Rachel continued, “I find Jesus to be a perfect example of empathy, as he offers grace and forgiveness to us no matter what we bring. And when I am reminded of that as a therapist, it gives me a great place to start with those who are hurting.”
Your Presence Makes a Difference
We all have the ability to offer empathy. No previous experience is required.
You can offer to others the safe and uplifting quality of a caring heart. Consider the people in your life who are facing mental health struggles—they are in your church, your neighborhood, and maybe your own family. Although you may feel awkward at first, recognize that you don’t have to have answers—your presence itself makes a difference.
And if you are struggling yourself, please don’t be afraid to speak up. You are not alone.