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Practicing Empathy as a Mental Health First Aider

Everyone has a “mental health toolkit” that helps them through good and bad times. It might contain self-care strategies, coping mechanisms for stressful days or people to turn to for support. As a Mental Health First Aider, your toolkit also includes tips and resources to help you support your peers, colleagues and loved ones who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. A key item to incorporate into your First Aider toolkit is empathy.

According to the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, empathy is “being able to imagine yourself in the other person’s place, showing the person that they are truly heard and understood by you.” It’s different from sympathy, which means feeling pity for someone. It sounds simple, but it can take practice to demonstrate empathy on a moment’s notice.

The ability to empathize is just as important when times are good as it is during difficult times. Being able to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person is vital for us to connect, respond appropriately and help them when they need it most. When you display empathy, the person you’re with will likely feel included, heard and supported, instead of isolated and disconnected. That’s especially important when you’re offering Mental Health First Aid.

Empathy can also benefit your own wellbeing. Consistently practicing empathy improves your ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience– so through the expression of empathy, you may be more equipped to handle stressful or emotionally challenging situations. In the end, it also helps you be more effective in managing your own stress.

Use these tips from the MHFA curriculum and other resources to help you practice empathy when supporting those around you.

  1. Listen nonjudgmentally. Listening is one of the best ways to demonstrate empathy. When we make an effort to listen to what other people tell us without making assumptions or passing judgment, we can more easily understand how they think and feel.
  2. Stay present. Focus on the other person and intentionally stay engaged. This will allow you to pay better attention to their words and body language. Set aside distractions like cell phones and ensure that the person you are with receives your undivided attention.
  3. Remove any barriers. Mentally acknowledge any preconceived notions or biases you may have so they don’t interfere. Avoid making assumptions about the person based on your personal experience.
  4. Concentrate on their needs. An empathetic listener can be calming, even healing, for a person experiencing a mental health challenge. Understanding a person’s experience will enable you to suggest appropriate resources. Be mindful of taking time to listen before you try to discuss possible courses of action.
  5. Focus on their feelings. Phrases like “I know exactly what you’re going through,” may be well-intentioned, but shift the focus away from the person you’re trying to help. The conversation needs to be about them, not you.
  6. Validate their experience and feelings. Assure the other person that their emotions are OK, and help is available. Don’t blame them for the situation or dismiss their reaction.

If you’re unsure of what to say or do, try using sample language from the MHFA curriculum, such as, “It sounds like things are really difficult for you right now,” or “I am here for you if you want to talk about it.” Statements like these show that you care and want to help.

Practicing empathy benefits you and your loved ones. It ensures they receive the care and understanding they need to maintain long-lasting and healthy relationships. So, remember to listen, stay present, focus on their needs, and remove any barriers to understanding their thoughts and feelings. With these tips in mind, you will be able to #BeTheDifference for yourself and those around you.

For more ways on how you can support a loved one, take a look at our other blogs:

 

References:

Brooks, E. (2015, December 16). Showing empathy and understanding to those who need help. NAMI. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2015/Showing-Empathy-and-Understanding-to-Those-Who-Nee .

Mental Health First Aid USA. 2020. Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Behavioral Health

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2017, July 28). The quiet power of empathic listening. Mental Health First Aid. https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2017/07/quiet-power-listening/ .

Miller, C. C. (n.d.). How to be more empathetic. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-be-more-empathetic .

Molenberghs, P. (2017, January 8). Understanding others’ feelings: What is empathy and why do we need it? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/understanding-others-feelings-what-is-empathy-and-why-do-we-need-it-68494 .

Psychology Today staff. (n.d.). Empathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy .

Rogers, K. (2020, June 24). Empathy is both a trait and a skill. Here’s how to strengthen it. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/24/health/develop-empathy-skills-wellness/index.html .

Rolston, A., & Lloyd-Richardson, E. (n.d.). What is emotion regulation and how do we do it? Cornell University College of Human Ecology. http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf .

Segal, E. A. (2018, December 17). Five Ways Empathy Is Good for Your Health. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/social-empathy/201812/five-ways-empathy-is-good-your-health.