The World Needs Empathy, Not Cheap Sympathy
Promoting mental health — more than a social obligation
It is ironic how we realize the preciousness of life only when it ceases to exist. Likewise, we fail to identify with the concept of mental health until somebody takes their own life.
A suicide is a horrible event, and I can be sure of this having seen one at close quarters in the last year. It devastates the deceased’s family and friends, leaving indelible scars of mental pain. And these scars often take an entire lifetime to heal.
In the aftermath of a suicide, people let emotions take over their rationale and, more often than not, are driven by a sense of anger. The immediate response of the majority is to find a villain to blame the event on. However, very few realise that the mishap could have been averted had the individual been provided the right kind of mental support.
There is also a much larger section of people who take to social media to offer “their support”. Many of them post deep messages on how “we need to encourage mental health”. Some even make a virtual promise to be there for anybody to talk to. But, the world needs empathy, not cheap sympathy.
As great and nice as it sounds, it’s still a far-fetched effort. Both you and I know how these messages embody half-boiled sympathy, born out of a sense of obligation to post on social media. Of course, not everybody is pompous. But many of us are.
If making a difference is what matters to us, we have to do better than a shamelessly copied Instagram story. Though sharing a verbose post is the easiest action to take, its also the most pointless one.
Suicide Is a Global Problem
As of 2017, suicide ranked as the 15th highest cause of deaths in the world (Figure 1). It is to also be noted that out of the 15 top causes, dementia and suicide are the only cognitive disorders.
While dementia is officially recognized as cognitive degradation, suicide is not a result of the deterioration of the mind. It can be more related to a loss of spirit or a sense of hopelessness engendered by great pain and suffering. So, it would be right to say that “Suicide is the largest cause of mental stress-related deaths in the world”.
14% of the world’s burden of disease is attributed to mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. Another startling fact is that every 40 seconds, 1 person dies by suicide in the world. This means that for every day we spend complaining about our lives, 2,160 others give theirs because they can’t live anymore.
Depression, which is one of the leading causes of mental instability and suicide, affects 264 million people. Based on this plausible calculation, we could easily meet up to 80,000 people in our lifetime. Putting two and two together, it's very likely that we would meet at least 2,400 people suffering from depression in our life.
Now think about this: How many lives would we be saving if we take up accurate measures of promoting mental health through our individual acts? A lot I would say! People don’t have the time to read long posts on social media. We need to lead by example and an obligatory post weighs too light on the scale of human decency.
If we are to help bring about a positive change, there is a lot more we must do than raise a voice. And our contributions must start with a fundamental step — understand the global landscape.
For every day we spend complaining about our lives, 2,160 others give theirs because they don’t want to live anymore.
A Global Perspective on Mental Health
Ignorance towards mental health is not confined to any organization or social community. The world on a whole does not spend enough resources on negating the ill effects of mental trouble.
The global median number of mental health workers is as low as 9 per 100,000 people, with some countries having as low as even 2 per 100,000 people. 45% of the world population live in a country where there is less than one psychiatrist per 100,000 population. The world is in dearth of trained professionals who could help people in need of mental support.
The mental health sector also receives very low amounts of financial support. In low-income countries, the median public expenditure on mental health is as low as 2 USD per citizen. In higher countries, this figure touches 50 USD, which is still not very high.
75% of WHO’s member nations have a standalone mental health policy. But, several of these are created without the suggestions of people who have been affected by mental stress.
This lack of support might be because mental illness is difficult to identify, unlike other diseases. It often takes more than an untrained mind to decipher another’s psychological condition.
This is also the reason why we often get responses like “It’s okay. You will do fine.”, “Oh, that’s nothing. You should be happy with what you have.”, “Stop all this cribbing. Act mature.” etc., when we are in mental distress.
It is not that people do not want to help, it is that they do not know how to do so. After all, we receive too little education on mental health during schooling. How can we expect people to help us with something they were never exposed to?
It has now become fashionable to call out people’s ignorance regarding mental health on social media. But, an eloquent post intended to shame people for their lack of understanding is nowhere close to promoting mental health. A story can’t be of any help until it provides actionable points to the viewer.
45% of the world population live in a country where there is less than one psychiatrist per 100,000 people.
Rays of Hope
Since it’s advent in 2011, Project Atlas has reported significant improvements in how nations are improving their standards and facilities for mental care. It was established that around 60% of WHO’s member states had active suicide mortality data — Data that could help policymakers understand the nature of suicide and work towards chalking out solutions to prevent it.
As of 2017, around 35% of nations reported having a national suicide prevention strategy. While this number might seem low, it is still higher than what the figures were in the years before. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) has in its list the core objective to reduce the suicide mortality rate by a third by 2030.
Figure 2 describes a comparison between country-wise suicide rates in 1990 and 2017. For most countries, suicide rates have decreased in 2017 compared to 1990. This is a very positive sign.
The world is not at a standstill, it’s improving every day. But, the real question is, are we?
Strike at the Root if You Want a Change
Every time a celebrity dies by suicide, a majority of the world goes into “active message sharing” mode. Everybody starts telling people about how they will be there to listen to people’s issues. Everybody becomes a mental coach. These actions need not be malicious, but they are ineffective.
This might be a very unpopular opinion, but I will say it anyways — People do not need someone to talk to, they need somebody to understand them. There is a considerable difference between being there for someone and understanding their feelings.
I once had to go through a period of hopelessness, due to my trepidation that I would not get into an IIT. When I talked to my peers at school, they said “Me too bro. I so feel you.” Of course, they didn’t. That was petty obligation. Some even gave me suggestions to “chill”. This advice was very concise but completely devoid of utility.
When I talked about my troubles with my parents, they didn’t tell me to chill about it. Instead, they heard me out, let me speak, and didn’t throw suggestions at me until I asked them to help me. Sometimes, silent listening is way more important than trying to help.
This brings me to the root of why people are not usually able to talk about their mental state. The way how I see it, there are 4 different reasons:
- Social stigma: Since childhood, we have been coerced into living how the world wants us to fit in. In such an environment, it’s never easy to talk about our inner fears. Most times, we prefer to keep it in us and endure, than be subjected to the horrible judgment of a two-faced world.
- People find it funny: Yes. This is a real point that nobody is talking about. We always have seen people laugh at another’s insecurity and claim, “Ah, that’s so silly. LOL”. A pointless laugh at someone’s fears has exacerbating effects.
- People don’t understand: Sometimes, even after trying too hard people fail to understand how another feels. This causes us to altogether drop the idea of talking to someone as the effort is usually futile.
- The ghosts of our past: Not all of us are proud of our actions in the past. Sometimes, we do wrong. But even if we reform our ways at a later stage, the ghosts of our past haunt us and we are too embarrassed to talk to the world about it. We fear backlash and of course, we should — The majority of the world is too shallow to forgive.
Without any surprise, we see how most of the reasons leading to suicide are not consequences of the actions of the person who commits it. The main driver to such a tragedy is the perception of the community that the person is a part of.
The “One size fits all” ideology is a lazy approach to dealing with the promotion of mental health. A sympathetic attitude towards people would only drive them away from you. The need of the hour is to put yourself in another’s shoes. Empathy is what gives solutions to another’s problem.
Silent listening is way more important than trying to help.
What Can You Do to Help?
While international organizations like the UN and WHO continue to make significant improvements towards mental health in the world, the onus is on us to inculcate these practices in our communities. As individuals, we are not all-powerful. But through our collective actions, there is a lot we could achieve.
However, it is important to know what actions we could and should take. We are over-imaginative creatures. So, very often our suggestions are nothing but unicorns, impractically wonderful. The best way to ensure that we set realistic goals for ourselves is to identify with the existing research in the field.
Figure 3 depicts the key risk factors for suicide aligned with relevant interventions. It is a solid foundational detail in WHO’s 2014 report on preventing suicide.
Based on my personal experiences and the diagram above, I propose 15 steps below. These steps could help us bring about a wave of positive social change with regard to mental health and suicide prevention.
1. Abstain from discrimination
Avoid all kinds of discrimination towards individuals based on their caste, color, religion, skillsets, cognitive abilities, personal choices, and public opinions.
2. Refrain from cyberbullying
Don’t be a cyberbully. Worse, don’t be a cyber idiot. If you are living in an age with internet, realise its a privilege — use it for whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt people without cause.
3. Do not make it about you
Hear people out, don’t tell them what to do unless they ask you for your opinion. Don’t make it about “you being there”. A person’s depression is not your gateway to getting brownie points for kindness.
4. Promote self-sufficiency
Do not overprotect people, especially children. Teach them to be self-reliant and self-sufficient to a large extent. You can watch all the “feel good” movies in the world, but in the end, if you can’t stand up for yourself, nothing matters.
5. Avoid meaningless derision
If you must criticise an opinion, do it by providing constructive feedback. If you have nothing valuable to offer, do not exercise your vocal cords. Or your typing abilities.
6. Build a community
If you have contacts with people at your organization or university or neighbourhood and also time to do so, build a community to promote mental health. Have weekly sessions, talk about your fears, allow people to express theirs, and invite experts to be a part of it.
7. Give people space
Do not “try” to make people happy. Treat them in a normal fashion. Don’t force them to share their troubles with you. The more you force, the more they will resist.
8. Discourage the act of suicide
Discuss how suicide is an extremely dastardly step. Let people know how their moment of escapade from troubles is paid by their loved ones with the agony of a lifetime.
9. Be generous with praise
Do not shy away from praising a person for their ideas. A single word of praise could help people realise their worth in the world. The global economy loses about 1 trillion USD every year in productivity due to depression and anxiety. So, every mind counts.
10. Respond responsibly to tragedy
In the event of a suicide, respond responsibly to the aftermath. Be ready to seek out the truth behind what happened, why it happened, and how such a tragedy could be averted in the future. Don’t just use this as a medium to exert your personal motives.
11. Communicate responsibly
Don’t connive at what you hear and do not slap your version of the truth on people around you. WHO has specified some very reasonable guidelines on how the media should report suicides. If you are voicing out a case of suicide you know about, be responsible. There have been scientific studies that affirm that sensationalised cases often might lead to further attempts of suicide.
12. Measure your actions
If you are a person or an organization with great power, understand that any sensitive action you perform could lead to serious mental stress to affected individuals. Ensure you also have the means to provide mental aid and support and also to mollify the damage caused.
13. Support the bereaved
Provide support in terms of your physical presence to the ones close to the deceased. You don’t need to do anything fancy like writing a poem. All you need to do is be there, be quiet, and offer your shoulder if they need it.
14. Be kind
Mutual acts of kindness go a long way in refining human civilization. Try to treat people as you would want them to treat you. You might not know them, but a gesture of kindness from a stranger might make their day.
15. Report a suicide responsibly
If you must report about the event, be responsible, and follow WHO’s guidelines :
- Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes the act — Suicide is not an option to a problem
- Avoid undue repetition of the stories — Do not glorify a person’s tragedy
- Abstain from explicitly describing the method of suicide — Respect the person’s demise
- Abstain from posting sensitive images or videos of the attempt — Respect the person and his family’s right to privacy
- Do not talk about things you don’t fully understand — Understand the complete story before you play the crude blame game
A Final Note
Mental health is not invisible. It is often hidden by people because they feel that the world is not ready to accept their issues. Your obligatory social media posts will not help anybody come forward and trust you. People do not crave for your sympathy, they need you to be empathetic towards them.
They do not say it, but they sure understand the reality of your scarcely credible promises. Ask yourself — Is a social media rant the best you can do when somebody takes their life? No, there is so much more we can do.
The world needs empathy, not cheap sympathy.
Worldwide Suicide Prevention Hotlines:
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide ideation, please seek support. This list of suicide crisis lines can connect you to help.
Ramshankar Yadhunath is a Data Analyst intern at People for Animals, Bangalore, India. He will be shortly beginning his Masters in the Applied Social Data Science program at the London School of Economics and Political Science.