Tag Archives: empathy

 My friend is in trouble. What can I do to help?

When my friend was in trouble, I spent a whole lot of time thinking and wondering how I could help her and her immediate family. I cooked for us and for her, but how could I tell her that that I wanted to help without offending her? So, I spent time trying to solve my problem  and this is what I came up with. I prepared some questions to use when I next saw her and here are some I came up with.

Has your cleaner returned from her vacation yet? If not, allow me to send mine over just this once.

I have so much food left over from lunch today. I would like you to have it.

I have no idea how you are feeling but I want you to know that I will always be there for you when you feel like talking.

I am not busy today so if you need help folding your laundry, do let me know.

Tell me one day what it’s like to be ‘you’ for 24 hours. I want to know.

I bought flowers to cheer you up. Is it okay to bring them over and put them in a vase?

white roses in a vase

Give your patient a glimmer of hope, please

white flowersDuring my son’s illness … paranoid schizophrenia; we met up with many psychiatrists at the various hospitals and I always felt that both my son and I were being judged. I’d been under the impression that their job was to make their patient feel safe and comfortable even though this is not an easy task.

When his psychiatrist came late for an appointment at the hospital, my son felt that his wellbeing was unimportant to the doctor. Of course there are times when a doctor cannot help being delayed, but it’s not as if he/she was called regularly to the operating theater to perform emergency surgery.

It was so difficult to make contact with my son’s psychiatrist during the many emergencies that had a habit of occurring during weekends or public holidays. So, instead of getting good advice on the phone, we had to take our son to the hospital, and if our son did not comply with the orderly on duty, another one, brandishing a syringe would creep up from behind and deliver a shot into my son’s butt. If we had decided not to take him to the hospital, what could we have done at home? He was tall, strong, and on occasion, frightening. On one occasion, a psychiatrist let slip that the staff had been warned to walk behind my son at all times, yet, they sent him home for weekends to our family consisting of teenage daughters, my husband and myself. A catch-22 situation if I ever saw one. So, what did we do? My husband used his sense of humor whenever possible, and it often worked. I was less able to do this.

At medical school, psychiatrists and psychologists are taught to be ‘rather aloof’ – the only word that comes to mind – well, that doesn’t work for their patients or for their parents. When my son needed to feel that he was human after all, aloofness made him feel alone, lonely and neglected at the very time when he needed to be shown that he was human after all. Can you imagine how it must feel to lose your mind – your sanity?  I can’t.   What am I suggesting? ….I am suggesting that the doctor take care to use an empathetic tone of voice, that the doctor consider putting a hand on his patient’s arm when he is in indescribable distress and most important of all, that the doctor leave any remnant of an argument he/she might have had with a family member before leaving for the hospital. We all  know that  personal issues should never influence professional attitudes. Easier said than done? Yes, I know that. I also know that psychiatrists are only human. BUT, you chose this profession, not me.

Doctor, if your patient is suicidal, this is not an unusual occurrence for you, but, it is to his/her parents so please be generous with empathy when imparting this information to his/her parents. Those parents are going through their own kind of hell due to their child’s mental illness and need tender loving care desperately. My son needed to feel that he was in a safe, friendly environment. Instead, it was frightening.

The patient needs to be informed about any side effects caused by the heavy meds prescribed and if he/she asks about the side effects to their sexuality, the subject should not be avoided.

As parents don’t have the emotional energy to do so, it would be so helpful to help fight the stigma associated with mental illness. You have the wherewithal if you choose to do so.

Last, but not least, give your patients a glimmer of hope p l e a s e.  Nobody can live without hope.


Please treat us as equals

People with disabilities are human beings, you know. They need to be kept safe from malice and abuse. When we meet a person with a disability, we all need to remember that he/she is a unique human being with knowledge, interests and talents like the rest of us. They may do things differently from the way we do them but, they are able to achieve the same outcomes. The way we behave, demonstrates our respect for that individual.

Nobody likes to be pitied. In fact, I have learned many of life’s lessons from people who are disabled in one way or another. When I meet a person who has difficulty hearing what I am saying, I realize that many of them learn to lip read, while others use sign language, so it’s a good idea to ask how they prefer to communicate. Or, write a short note.

If I meet a person in a wheelchair, I try to place myself at eye level which makes us both feel more comfortable; equal somehow.

I have been told that a person who has been disabled since birth likes to be described as someone with a congenital disability while someone with Cerebral Palsy prefers us to say, ‘He/She has cerebral Palsy. The word cripple is offensive so an option when describing that person could be; He/She is a person who needs mobility assistance.

Instead of using the expression a deaf and dumb mute, I prefer to say, a person who is deaf and does not speak. Rather than use  the word, deformed, use the expression someone with a physical disability.

Rather than say mongoloid, use the expression Down Syndrome. Retarded is so offensive, so we could use the term, a person with a cognitive disability.

Midget or dwarf ? Rather describe that person as small in stature or a small person while someone with a hunchback is an individual with a spinal curvature.

Emotional disability sounds far easier to hear than emotionally disturbed, doesn’t it? So when talking to someone with a cognitive disability, it’s a good idea to try and use short, simple sentences. And, when I know that a person is mentally ill, which is one of the hidden illnesses, I have learnt how to be patient; very patient. I always seem to come back to mental illness, don’t I? Rather than use the words insane, deranged or deviant, it’s far less offensive to all the people with mental illness out there to describe that man or woman simply as a someone with a mental illness.

A wheelchair bound person or one confined to a wheelchair could be described as someone who uses a wheelchair.

So, what do we call a ‘normal’ person? Maybe a non-disabled, able-bodied individual? But, are any of us  ‘normal?’ What is ‘normal?’


We should all …

We should all advocate contact with people who have a mental illness.

We should all make sure that people with a mental illness have the same rights as the rest of us.

We should challenge organizations to make sure that they are not discriminating against these people.

We should all aim to educate and train others in order to change discriminatory attitudes and behavior.

We should do so on television and on the radio.

We should organize public speaking engagements by people with experience of mental illness.

We should report journalists for using discriminatory phrases.

We should make sure that new journalists are taught to follow the correct guidelines.

These could be some of the positive results from the above program.

People will be more aware of how common mental illness is.

People will be less judgmental and more interested than previously.

People will feel lower levels of stigma and discrimination from family, mental health services and the public.

A new infrastructure will slowly be built for educating and training people in this new way of thinking.

Mental illness is one of the invisible illnesses

What we can avoid saying to a person suffering with an invisible illness. The following was said to a patient suffering from a psychiatric illness as well as his replies.

“You might feel bad, yet you look fine so it might be difficult to find a friend or even a doctor to take you seriously, you know.”

‘You don’t have the slightest idea of how I feel. I can barely get out of bed before noon.’

“You look wonderful today. I’m the one feeling tired. I’ve been working overtime.”

Have you ever felt that someone is pushing you down so that you can’t get up even if you want to? That makes me tired, really tired. I wish I could say I am tired from work.”

“Why don’t you go out there and find a job? That will surely make you feel better?”

“That’s’ exactly what I am unable to do due to my illness.’

“Excercise more and you will be full of energy.”

‘Excercise? I can barely raise my head. The voices don’t allow me to sleep so I am up most of the night. A sleeping tablet helps sometimes but not much. Forget exercise, pal. Because I suffer from schizophrenia, I know exactly what the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy are saying, you know. Do you know that I am unable to open a child-proof bottle of pills? My hands either have no strength or shake? Do you know how hurtful it is when people pester me to find a pastime? Do they think that I don’t want to be busy?  Someone once said;

‘Are you sure you’re not simply seeking attention with all these antics? At least you get a lot of bed rest. I wish I could take off work the way you do! Maybe you should see a therapist or try alternative medicine!’

“Do they really think that I don’t want to work and live a life like other people?”

Here are some of the more positive comments that could be made.

‘Go ahead and cry if you need to.’ OR ‘Let’s do your shopping and other errands on Thursday but please remember to make a list and let me know what time suits you. I can make it any time after 5:00 p.m.’ OR be positive and pay him a compliment or two. ‘How on earth do you manage to remain positive sometimes?’ ‘Do you want me to help you find a support group? Maybe we can even go together the first few times.’ “Would you like me to help you pick out a new sweatshirt? This one looks a bit … worn?’ OR ‘I’m going for a walk along the beach. Would you like to join me?’

It is not advisable for a person with a psychiatric illness who is taking medication to go to a pub, so that is a suggestion I would omit.