Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

The only two steps to understanding mental health.

The last five years have been a busy time for mental health problems making the news. We’ve had numerous mass killings by shooters who allegedly suffered from various mental health problems; Andreas Lubitz, who had a long history of battling depression, intentionally crashed a flight killing all 149 passengers on board; actor Robin Williams committed suicide, which led to a very public discourse about suicide and it’s supposed “selfishness;” and just a few years ago, Representative Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down by a man who was later discovered to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.

These are just a few of the newsworthy events we have seen recently that were related to mental health. They all have one thing in common: someone battling a mental health problem doing something dangerous, scary, or harmful.

Stories like this are sad. And they make us afraid.

When people do scary and harmful things for reasons we don’t understand, it strikes fear in our bones. We don’t know what to do, so we usually blame and stigmatize to numb our discomfort. Fear is the natural response to things we don’t understand. The more we don’t understand something, the more afraid we become of it. And I can think of nothing more feared and stigmatized today than issues and concerns around mental health. But I would like to offer you a different template for understanding mental health that can help to make events like these less nonsensical, and a little less scary.

The first ingredient I use to help me better understand mental health is empathy. When I am afraid of something, it’s usually a sure sign that I don’t understand it. So, in order to decrease my fear, I have learned to move toward that person or thing to try and get a more honest understanding of what it would be like to be them. This requires that I ask honest and respectful questions with an open mind.

In the aftermath of the above tragedies, I heard some pretty unempathetic statements. I heard some version of the following in my conversations with people after each of the events:

“People with mental health disorders should not be able to be pilots. Don’t you know that crazy people don’t need a job where they are responsible for the lives of others?” 

“Robin Williams was so selfish. I cannot think of a more selfish action than committing suicide. He should have known better.”

“Some crazy lunatic got ahold of a gun and shot down a politician. We need to lock up these schizophrenics so the world can be a safer place.”

These statements do not address the reality of mental health and do nothing to offer a constructive solution that’s based in fact. Rather, they are statements seeped in blame to relieve the person’s own fear and feelings of powerlessness.

Empathetic statements achieve the opposite. Empathy doesn’t seek answers in blame. Empathy seeks answers in truth. It fosters a curiosity to understand others—to get a better sense of what it’s like to be someone else, so better solutions can be found.

Empathy sounds like this:

I wonder what people who struggle with mental health problems today are finding helpful? What can friends and family members of those struggling do to help and what resources do they have?

I don’t understand how someone can hurt so badly that it would cause them to take their own life. I need to ask someone I know who has battled depression how that works.

These mass shootings are really scary. I wonder if all people who battle mental health disorders act in such violent ways? Who can I ask to find that out? 

These are the beginning wonderings of someone who is operating from a place of empathy rather than blame and fear. And if someone is honestly asking these questions, their empathy will naturally enlarge. The honest pursuit of truth usually leads us to connection with others and breeds more compassion.

This leads to the second thing I have found to help understand mental health: good information. There are a lot of myths floating around about mental health that do not have one shred of truth to them. And, sadly, they continue to get perpetuated. In order to truly understand something, we have to make sure we are getting reliable information from reliable sources, and we need to understand the facts. Consider these myths that were widely publicized after a major mental health news story:

Schizophrenics are usually violent and dangerous. Actually, being diagnosed with schizophrenia does not make someone violent. Someone with schizophrenia can become violent if they use drugs and alcohol. But so can anyone who abuses substances.

People who commit suicide are selfish. This is a bit more subjective, but it is my opinion (as well as many other mental health professionals) that suicide is not rooted in selfishness. Often people who are suicidal are so depressed that they feel their mere presence makes others more miserable. So in their depressed state, ridding the world of themselves seems perfectly reasonable and kind.

Mental illness makes someone unsuitable for many jobs. Let’s be clear: many people will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. And most people will not commit a violent act. Depression was not the only factor that caused Lubitz to crash the plane. We may never know the entirety of his reasoning, but one thing I do know: using depression as a sole scapegoat does nothing to decrease the stigma of mental illness or solve the problem.

If you’d like a good place to start to begin accessing good information about mental health, I would suggest brushing up on some of the mental health basics. The National Institute for Mental Health does a great job of explaining some of the basic mental illnesses and why they occur. Also, Mind for Better Health has some great resources to help nonprofessionals understand how they can help others who are struggling.

Practice saying the words ‘depression,’ ‘suicide,’ and ‘anxiety’ so they roll off the tongue easily. They aren’t bad words. Start conversations. Ask someone if they are depressed if you see the symptoms. Become known as a safe person that isn’t afraid to talk about mental health.

By combining empathy and good information, hopefully you will notice a change in how you begin comprehending mental health. Maybe you will begin to understand people better by seeing the person instead of the suicide. Or hear the suffering instead of the disorder. Perhaps you’ll begin to feel empathy instead of judgment.

The first place to start is usually to simply listen. Listen to what is being said about mental health in your circles and listen to those around you who are struggling firsthand with a mental health problem. One of my favorite authors, Margaret Wheatley, describes listening as ‘holy.’ Let’s practice holy listening together to elevate the conversation about mental health. Let’s listen intelligently and compassionately—pay attention, ask good questions, and walk in another’s shoes to get a better understanding of how mental health affects all of us.