We’re told 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health challenge in their lifetime. I think this number is significantly higher. I believe, 1 in 4 seek and gain a diagnosis, while many others may either suffer in silence or proactively overcome their mental health challenge without the support of a doctor. Regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, which I respect are extremely difficult to obtain, many of us will meet someone experiencing a mental health challenge. For this article, I will specifically reference depression although the information shared works just as well for stress and anxiety.
In this series of articles, I am exploring the seven skills we need for a future without depression and one of the most important is empathy. While there is certainly a benefit to a person with depression having strong empathy skills, I think a more critical breakthrough is in those supporting people with depression harnessing the power of empathy.
There is a lot of high-quality information out there on identifying a mental health challenge, and I appreciate the risk of summarising more common symptoms here for fear of oversimplifying the illness, but my role is to educate, so here goes. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety and now supports others through my work as a Life Coach, my clients and I identify with the following symptoms:
- irritable, aggressive, impatient, wound up
- unable to concentrate, lack of focus or concentration, finding it hard to make decisions
- avoiding situations, isolating self, avoiding social events and activities
- nervous, afraid, fearing the worse
- habitual or addicted, increased negative habits
- tired but can’t sleep, or sleeping too much, too little
- over-burdened, overwhelmed
- down, upset, tearful
Those listed might be easier to recognise as someone outside looking in, particularly where these symptoms seem out of the ordinary for the person in question. There are many more, the majority of which the person will experience internally. While everyone will need supporting in their own way the key to discovering this is to speak with them. Applying your empathy skills to achieve this is critical.
Empathy is the ability to understand and be aware of the feelings and thoughts of other people. Many people who haven’t experienced depression feel uncomfortable offering support to a person with it because they haven’t been through it, and there lies the primary reason for the application of empathy. It is sympathy that requires us to have experienced what the other person has experienced whereas empathy only requires us to understand it from the other person perspective.
I could make a case that speaking with an empathetic person who has never experienced depression is one of the best interventions for a person with depression.
You cannot sympathise and therefore must seek to understand, the process of which you gain this understanding is precisely what the individual needs.
Being able to see things from another person’s perspective is difficult, and we are naturally primed to find commonalities between ourselves and others. We will often take a person’s situation and apply to it a frame of our own making, fundamentally changing their picture into ours.
In her book 7 Skills for the Future, author Emma-Sue Prince shares,
“Generally, we do not think, see or perceive the world as other people do, but we do spend a lot of our time operating within our way of thinking, seeing or perceiving the world and expecting everyone else to be operating from the same paradigm.”
You must be able to get out of your own way to achieve empathy. Push aside your thoughts and feelings about the challenge and seek to understand the thoughts and feelings of the person.
Foremost, understand yourself. What do you believe, what are your primary thoughts and feelings, what do you currently understand about depression? Once you’ve identified this information, you can now cast it all aside. Being mindful to ensure you aren’t filling any blanks with your thoughts and feelings. Your primary objective is to understand what they believe, what are their thoughts and feelings, how are they experiencing their depression.
When experiencing depression, we benefit from speaking to someone who truly listens to us. Active listening is the primary tool for achieving empathy and will provide you the information you need to form your understanding of the person’s current challenges. Ask open questions and listen beyond the words being said. While empathy skills are on the decline due to the rise in digital communication, we’re still human and connecting with a person, particularly face to face, take in the tone of voice and body language. Don’t panic and trust your intuition to feel what the other person is feeling and allow this to lead your conversation.
To guide you, author and speaker Brené Brown provides four keys to assessing whether you are empathetic:
- Empathy is being able to see the world as others see it
- Empathy is being non-judgemental
- Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings
- Empathy is communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings
When beginning life coaching, my clients with depression will express how much better they feel after just one session. That is in its entirety due to them having been listened to and having experienced empathy. As someone who has experienced depression myself, I must get out of my head and into theirs, being sure to see understand their version of depression, without relating it in any part to mine. I know with practice everyone can achieve this and create a positive impact on another person’s life.
It’s a win-win for you too. A further gain of cultivating empathy by having what might be a difficult conversation with another person is that doing so creates a new experience on which you should reflect and therefore learn, enhancing your ability to apply empathy in the future.
In this ever-changing and fast-paced world, I believe more and more people are going to begin to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. It is an authentic human connection and empathy shared with another person which will prove pivotal for our mental wellbeing.