I grew up believing that I lived in a perfect family, including my grandparents’ generation. In a way, this provided a sense of safety and positivity in my world. As I grew older, I came to know about relatives who struggled with depression and anxiety. I also learned of individual and family trauma, including a great aunt about whom I had never heard until I was in my 50s. It was believed that she had suffered trauma at the hands of a relative. She died by suicide at the age of 15 while at a relative’s home. My grandmother’s bipolar illness wasn’t referred to by a diagnostic name. My grandfather often referred to her condition as “a case of the nerves” or “psychosomatic” problems. Later on, as I furthered my studies in the fields of psychology and clinical mental health counseling, I came to understand how stigma played a role in preserving painful family secrets through endorsing an unspoken belief system in which things were “perfect.”
“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” – Bob Kerrey
When I experienced some emotional struggles as a very young child as well as during my teen years, I sometimes talked about them with my father. He was not a trained clinical professional; however, he exuded kindness and truly listened to people. He listened to me. When I was unsure about what to make of some of my thoughts or feelings, instead of dismissing my concerns, he reflected on them, and he provided encouragement. He also shared with me about some of his struggles in life, which let me know that I was not alone and that he was there for me. A powerful comment that my father once said to me has stuck with me and has been helpful in growing compassion that leads to action. He said, “We all have a little something.” I knew what he meant. I felt what he was extending to me: compassion. Underlying this compassion were his understanding and empathy. As professionals working in behavioral health services, we are more likely to focus on and practice empathy. Although compassion and empathy are distinct concepts, compassion that is built on and compatible with empathy can be woven into our interactions and relationships with others in ways that can facilitate reducing mental health stigma.
“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” – Steve Maraboli
Informed compassion should lead us to action: Developing and living out compassion in our daily lives can facilitate a way of life—a way of life which is lived out regardless of any circumstance in which we find ourselves. Compassion can be instrumental in most life circumstances. Practicing compassion (including with ourselves) can reduce mental health stigma by creating safe, trusting environments of care where people can develop resilience, moving toward healing and recovery through exercising their strengths, rather than through a primary focus on trying to overcome mental illness.
So, what is compassion? Various dictionary definitions include the word “empathy”, but compassion is a much older word than empathy. Per Meriam-Webster, compassion has… “been part of the language since the 14th century, and comes ultimately from Latin com- and pati, meaning “to bear, suffer.” I like this one the best: “Compassion is a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
So, how do we become better informed in our compassion? How can we develop and sustain a compassion-filled work environment where people want to engage, live out their best ideals and contribute to the betterment of recipients’ lives? My suggestions below are not scientifically derived, though research endorses some of them. They are principles which I have learned through management coaching and development, trainings and reflectively lived personal and professional experience.
Develop a safe, trusting environment – The environments we build with ourselves and our colleagues tend to become a way of life that extends to recipients of care. It is impossible to offer a trusting environment of care when we are not in synch with our organizational and personal goals for building trusting environments. When people know that they are accepted for who they are and can be assured of a safe, nurturing environment, they are more likely to engage in healing and recovery.
Commit to active listening – Listen more than speaking. Actively consider what others are telling us through their words and nonverbal indicators. Listening with a compassionate ear offers non-judgmental understanding and as we offer support, people will believe that we are available to them again in the future. Even just letting someone know that you’re available to talk can have a positive impact on their mental health.
“Dis-ease” vs. Disease – We have learned over the past two decades that becoming trauma-informed is essential to compassionate environments of care, and especially in the healing and growth processes. At the same time, let’s challenge ourselves to be equally focused on how to lessen “dis-ease” through meaningful human connectedness. So much of our field has for years been overly focused on the disease aspects of mental illness. While these are important, essential components of the treatment process, competent, compassionate caring allows us to better understand other people, including the “dis-ease” that often accompanies mental health challenges. When people begin to understand misalignments in their lives from all angles—including psychological, physiological, existential and spiritual—they can begin to develop a sense of belonging and connectedness.
Avoid getting stuck on perfection – We’ve all heard the truistic exhortation, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” While we must address and improve deficits in care, let’s also build on our individual and collective strengths, learning from recipients and each other on what allows us all to connect and grow. Let’s recognize progress and improvements on which we can build more compassionate workplace relationships. As a colleague recently reminded me, “It’s about profession, not perfection.”
Know your life’s purpose – When we examine our overall values and commitments in order to clarify our life’s purpose, we can best live out who we are designed to be. This leads to an intentional way of living, including at work, which in turn can reinforce our authenticity. Living authentically allows us to demonstrate greater compassion as we strive to understand our colleagues, family and friends who might be struggling with mental health challenges.
Reducing mental health stigma requires more than good intentions. It requires a continual rededication to growing our compassion for others and putting it into action. Modeling compassion can bring much joy to others and ourselves as we focus less on what is “wrong” with someone and instead lift others up through compassionate caring that empowers others through a mutual focus on wellbeing.
Let’s create environments where empathic, compassionate understanding is the norm rather than the exception! Let’s get to know our colleagues beyond only a “workplace self” or style. While we need to create and maintain healthy boundaries, sharing even small personal aspects of ourselves helps to create a fuller sense of who we are, which in turn allows us to be more approachable and reciprocal in mutual support as we destigmatize mental health challenges. Let’s build stronger bonds and resilience as we find new ways to be compassionate toward each other and ourselves within our healthcare settings!
“There is no small act of kindness. Every compassionate act makes large the world.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
David L. Putney, MS, CRC, LMHC, is Executive Director, Elmira Psychiatric Center, NY State Office of Mental Health (OMH).