Why Understanding and Empathy are Important for Students with Mental Health Conditions
By Helen Wong, English Language and Linguistics student at King’s College London
Mental health issues can affect anyone regardless of gender, race, age, and religion. 1 in 4 people are affected at some points in their lives. Just because mental health conditions are invisible doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Despite how common mental illnesses are, there still seems to be a lack of understanding around the subject in general.
Mental health conditions do not define us.
There tends to be a labelling effect for mental illnesses thanks to the media which often portrays people with mental illnesses as dangerous. Worse still, some consider the word ‘mentally ill’ to be synonymous with ‘crazy’. According to the mental health charity MIND, people with mental illnesses are no more violent than the rest of the population; by contrast, murderers in movies are often portrayed to be perfectly sane. Our struggles and experiences are part of us and there is much more to a person than his or her diagnosis. Try to get to know us as a person rather than just labelling us.
Having a mental health condition does not make anyone stupid. Psychiatric diagnoses affect our emotions and reflect brain chemical imbalances, rather than our intelligence or intellect. Mental health conditions can cause someone’s thinking, mood and behaviour to fluctuate, and this may affect our ability to function or follow the same routine of work on some days.
When this happens, we don’t always have the answers…
We don’t always have answers for the cause of our conditions. We don’t always have answers for why we are feeling depressed or anxious at that particular moment. Sometimes it just happens. Period. We don’t always have explanations and we don’t mean to be pushing you away in the process.
Understanding and Empathy: Yes, please. Pity: No, thank you.
We would like your empathy, support, and understanding. But we can’t just ‘get better’. Imagine saying ‘just get better’ to a person with a broken bone. It will get better but it needs medical treatment. Just as a person with a physical illness needs rest to get better, people with mental health issues need time to heal too. When it comes to trying to help, listening shows that you are trying to understand.
We are not being lazy
We may have missed classes, looked disinterested in class discussions or turned our assignments in late. While other people might consider this ‘laziness’, the truth is that most of us would like to attend classes, participate actively in university life like most other students. However, many of us suffer from insomnia or feel too paralyzed to even move, leading us to be unable to attend class the next morning.
Other than perhaps scars from self-harming or physical symptoms and effects of eating disorders, mental illness is largely invisible – but they are by no means non-existent.
Adjustments exist for students with disabilities, learning difficulties or other health conditions for a reason. By being understanding and empathetic, you (whether you are a staff or a friend) are helping us to do better at university. In terms of adjustments, I found extensions to deadlines to be most useful. I had informed the university of my condition at the beginning of my degree and I was given a document to submit to lecturers as evidence when I needed additional time for an assignment.
Deadline extensions meant I could have sufficient time to stabilize my mental state before starting to work on my assignments, especially while I was in hospital where completing assignments was almost impossible. The extensions also prevent me from stressing too much over not being able to hand in work on time – this adjustment allowed me to focus on doing my best on an assignment, rather than handing in a rushed piece of homework.
I also met with my personal tutor to discuss how I was coping at the very beginning and at the end of each semester. During the semester, I knew I could contact my personal tutor if I needed any help at any time. I was open about my condition with my personal tutor and she took a proactive approach to ensure I was keeping up with my degree. For example, after periods of long absence, my personal tutor would arrange for lecturers of certain modules to have meetings with me so that I could catch up with the programme. These meetings were useful and I feel that my university has strived to provide the best support to me at difficult times.
Managing mental states is like my second job. What I’ve learnt is that taking the first step to explain my condition allows others to understand and support me better. I can speak for many when I say that putting up with emotional rollercoasters is difficult and we really appreciate the understanding and support from the people around us. Things like being able to leave the room at short notice, deadline (and library loan) extensions, taking exams in a smaller room instead of a large, intimidating hall are all adjustments that come with being open. They remind me that even though I don’t always have control of my mental states, I don’t have to fight this personal battle all by myself.