Empathy can save the world

Worldwide, nationally and locally there has been great emphasis on promoting mental health and understanding mental illness. These important discussions focus on the need for prevention, education for all, increased access to mental health services and improved coordination of care with integrated behavioral health services.

Implementing stigma-reducing language, programs and policies in our relationships, school system, workplace and our overall communities is critical, essential even, in moving forward.

In the months to come, stigma reduction and elimination will be in the forefront, woven into the work of Healthy Sheboygan County 2020 and its many partners, like Mental Health America in Sheboygan County.

Most recently, over 150 folks came together at UW Sheboygan Theatre to attend a reading of the play, “Stigmaphrenia” by Chloe Tyler, as part of this continued effort to begin to address stigma in our community. We will continue to involve you all as this particular piece, stigma elimination, perhaps the heart of the community conversation, unfolds.

First, I wanted to take a moment to focus on a part of stigma reduction that I believe is, at its core, a part that can ultimately save the world: empathy.

Empathy is the understanding and recognition of the state of mind, beliefs and/or desires of another person. Empathy is also one’s own emotional reaction to another’s emotions. A common way of referring to empathy is asking yourself to metaphorically “walk in someone’s shoes.”

Empathy is responding without judgment, criticism or confusion as you put your energy into trying to understand or experience someone else’s perspectives and feelings.

Why will this save the world?

Best-selling author and research professor Brene Brown notes, “empathy fuels connection while sympathy (or “silverlining” things) can create disconnection.”

Brown emphasizes the energy that exists between people when they believe to be valued, understood and recognized for what they feel. Empathy drives out shame, and shame can be a significant barrier in seeking mental health treatment.

Self-shame (inward-out) or societal shame (outward-in) is an undercurrent found in stigma. By becoming more empathetic to others, we create an environment where shame cannot survive, which ties into stigma reduction in our relationships, school system, workplace and community.

How do I become more empathetic?

The good news is empathy can be viewed as a skill set we can cultivate daily. Change your response from judgment to understanding. Think big, beyond yourself but all-encompassing when you are witness to someone struggling or,more importantly,someone has opened up to you.

Listen hard and do just that. Good intentions exist when we jump to find words that will make the person know “it could be worse” when ultimately they might need to know you simply accept their emotion, whatever the case.

Be kind to each other and ultimately yourself. Together we can create positive changes in our community, challenging ourselves as empathy saves the world.

Kate Baer is the executive director for Mental Health America in Sheboygan County and member of Healthy Sheboygan County 2020 Mental Health Committee.