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World Mental Health Day: Practicing empathy during the cost of living crisis

By Scott Macpherson and Dan Warrender - 10 October 2022

For World Mental Health Day, Lecturers Scott Macpherson and Dan Warrender share how the socio-economic environment influences our mental health and how to use empathy to support those who we need it the most.


Opinion pieces about mental health and well-being have been ten-a-penny since Covid-19 led to restrictions on freedoms in early 2020 (we should know, as we’ve had more requests than ever to write these).  Many of these articles offer well-meaning advice on how to improve your mental health, for instance by taking more exercise, eating a healthier diet, communicating more with friends and family…  But often this advice neglects to address the elephant in the room: the fact that everyone doesn’t start with the same resources. It is a shameful fact that we have created a society where the people who have the least in life also tend to have the poorest mental health.  

This might seem obvious and yet you may even subscribe to the view that people who are poor just need to work harder to achieve success and wealth but, this World Mental Health Day, we ask you to consider the many advantages you have had that have helped you achieve whatever degree of success you currently have. 

People who are born into poverty in this country are far less likely to achieve a good standard of education, are far more likely to develop chronic physical health conditions, are far more likely to be unemployed, are far more likely to have traumatic childhood experiences and are far more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder. We are all, to some extent, a product of our environment and some of us are simply lucky to have been born into more affluent families, affording us a better chance at circumstances that lend themselves to better mental health.

Mental health awareness days can be good for raising awareness about issues but there’s no getting away from the fact that prioritising mental health is a political issue. Mental health is often a political football in the public arena, with career driven politicians keen to look good and tell us how much they care, yet this could be said to be little more than tokenism when the cost of living rises and individuals feel ever more helpless and vulnerable. The social, environmental and economic conditions in a country have a huge influence on the mental health of its people. In this country we are facing a winter where many will be forced to choose between eating and heating and we would ask you to spare a thought for the mental distress that this will cause for those who are most affected by this terrible dilemma. Spare a thought too for the many other impacts that this situation may have for people – spiralling debt, increased stress, physical illness, arguments and relationship breakdown. Whilst we may all feel the impact of the cost of living crisis, some will certainly feel it more than others.

"... empathy requires us to consider what it would be like to be that person in that situation and (perhaps this is the most difficult part) to resist any judgement of the situation they find themselves in..."

We may be able to do little about the wider socio-economic conditions in the country other than exercising our right to vote for the party of our choice when election time comes around, or register our ongoing dissatisfaction through protest, but there are some things we can do on an individual level that can make a small difference. We can try to develop an empathic understanding of what it might be like to have experienced the many disadvantages that others have had to navigate through and consider how we may have coped (or not coped) given similar situations and resources at our disposal. 

An empathic response requires much more from us than a sympathetic one. While sympathy involves simply feeling sorry for someone’s situation, empathy requires us to consider what it would be like to be that person in that situation and (perhaps this is the most difficult part) to resist any judgement of the situation they find themselves in, the ways they are feeling or how they are trying to cope. An empathic response also requires us to try to gain an understanding of what the person is feeling (through asking the person and truly listening to what they are telling us) and then communicating this understanding of their feelings back to the person to show that we have really heard them, helping them to feel validated and understood. After all, feeling understood is one of our most fundamental human needs.  When we take the time to choose empathic understanding and responses in this way, we create powerful human connections.  Sometimes, for the person delivering empathy, this will feel like they have done little or nothing to help.  For the person receiving empathy though, feeling heard, understood and validated can help to restore hope and belief that others care.

Organisations too can play their part in helping people feel understood. RGU, for instance, offers a range of free, confidential support services for staff, students and members of the public who may be experiencing distress. The RGU chaplaincy service offers a listening ear for people of all religious and spiritual beliefs as well as those who don’t believe.  The RGU Report and Support platform provides help with making disclosures about gender based violence, hate crimes, harassment or bullying and provides detailed guidance and support around these issues. The law clinic offers free, confidential legal advice to members of the local community who cannot otherwise access legal advice. RGU also provides a free counselling and well-being service for students, offering support with both personal and academic issues.

Services and supports such as these can play a useful role in helping a person to feel heard and perhaps even to begin to see a way through some of their issues, yet if distress is rooted in a person’s financial and living circumstances then often any support offered will be swimming against an unforgiving tide. Much like with voting, if only a few people act with empathy and compassion then the influence will be very small, however if everyone does it then the impact will be large enough to begin to change our culture. Our empathy for others needs to extend beyond acts of kindness between individuals, and into the choices we make that shape our societies.

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