Following on from last month’s post on ‘the empathy deficit’ I thought I’d take a deeper look at some of the thoughts I had on the potential causes for an empathy deficit. The first reason I noted was how “preconceived values and beliefs about what having a mental illness ‘means’ about a person”.
Aristotle first said,
“Show me the boy at seven and I’ll show you the man”.
Then the Jesuits picked it up because they could also see how the first seven years of life impacted on the values people held for life. Neuroscience has now demonstrated at an empirical level what Aristotle worked out centuries ago. The value sets we experience in our earliest years, when our personalities are at their most plastic and open to the values that we are exposed to will stay with us for life. So what is it we learn as children that influence the positive or negative values and beliefs we hold about what it means to be ‘mentally ill’?
As young children are we exposed to a myriad of values and beliefs… what sticks and doesn’t is determined by a range of factors such as how long we spend with others, levels of authority, family dynamics and the way people we care about and love relate to other people. These influences as well as our own specific experiences determine what we believe which in turn determines how we respond to and act in the world.
So if as a child we see an adult on the street behaving in a way that is different from the adults we are with and we hear comments like “move away, stay away” coupled with comments about a person being “mad or crazy” we may develop a belief that it is in our best interests to stay away from that ‘crazy person’ who may be suffering from a mental illness. As a result as we grow up we may tend to shy away or actively remove ourselves from situations where a mentally ill person is in distress.
There is no right or wrong about this from my perspective. There is simply the question of what is helpful for those in need. Yes, someone having a psychotic break (in lay terms they are disconnected from reality as most of us experience it) may be scary, loud or even violent. But when it comes to people living with mental illness they are more likely to be victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. However, when our long held values about people living with mental illness lead us to turn away from those in need we miss an opportunity to learn new ways of relating to others. We learn to be more empathic. It’s like a muscle that gets worked out – it will grow with practise and repetition.
As is my style when inviting people to think differently about how they interact and respond to the world I offer the following. If a loved one or a friend lives with mental illness would you want others (including yourself) to be willing to help them in times of distress? If you live with mental illness would you want others to be willing to help you in times of distress?
What do you want your values and beliefs about what having a mental illness to mean about yourself or others?
Next month I’ll take a look at how being in denial about your own or a loved one’s mental illness can impact your ability to be empathetic in “Empathy Deficit Two: Can’t see the forest for the trees? Can’t see the trees for the forest…”
Why? Because your mind health matters.