Can’t see the forest for the trees? Can’t see the trees for the forest…


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In last month’s piece on what might be behind a mental health empathy deficit we took a look at the link between preconceived values and beliefs about what having a mental illness and what that might ‘mean’ about a person.

Continuing in the series of posts about some of the reasons why there might be an empathy deficit when it comes to dealing with people living with mental illness, this month’s topic takes a look at the impact of being in denial about one’s own or a loved one’s mental illness.

Potentially challenging territory here. My approach here is to offer some thoughts about the link between the empathy deficit and denial. I won’t be discussing how it can be fixed or what you can do on a personal level. This post is to simply get you thinking or get you thinking differently about the impact being in denial about a mental health challenge can have on the empathy we can or can’t demonstrate for others.

Imagine if you will a parent, who is struggling on a day-to-day basis with their mental health. Rather than putting their hand up and asking for help, they list a myriad of reasons why life is as hard as it is for them. They don’t have time to exercise. They’re too busy to eat right. They’re tired all the time. Their boss is a controlling narcissist. Their partner doesn’t understand or appreciate them. They never get any time alone and don’t forget how annoying it is when the barista wishes you a great day!

This could be a grand scale denial!

Now imagine that their teenage son is overtly displaying a significant number of the recognised signs and symptoms of depression. They’ve been occurring for at least two weeks and are significantly affecting his ability to learn, socialise and function effectively.

In denial of their own mental health challenges, this parent might take a less than empathic approach to dealing with their son. The parent sees themselves toughing life out… they know life isn’t fair and if you can’t deal with it tough luck. And a well-recognised impact of denying, ignoring or avoiding the signs and symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses is that they get worse. The ‘sads’ will go away by themselves. Depression won’t.

So, no right or wrong here. Just what’s helpful and effective. When a person is in denial of their own mental health challenges it can increase the likelihood of them denying the same issues in others that they love, live with or work alongside.

Maybe the next time you notice someone protesting loudly that there is nothing wrong with them or nothing wrong with so-and-so, you might like to re-think what might be going on under the surface of their protestations.

Next month I’ll take a look at how a lack of awareness or understanding of the causes of mental illness can add to the empathy deficit!

Why? Because mind health matters!