Mental Health Day: Learn to Practice Empathy to Help Others


We all have mental health. It has an impact on all aspects of our lives; our ability to deal with stress, adapt, solve issues, plus be content, productive, and well-adjusted. People who experience negative mental health can face stigma and discrimination in society. Despite there being nothing to be ashamed of this stigma can lead to shame and guilt and therefore a reluctance to seek help. 

A tool to help destigmatise mental health for those around you is empathy. 

Empathy vs. Sympathy

However, empathy is often confused with sympathy. While both can be useful tools to understand people, it is crucial to understand the difference between the two and the appropriate context of using each tool. Empathy, in its simplest form, is literally understood as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It involves feeling and acknowledging the emotions the other person is experiencing, actively listening without any cloud of judgement and being aware of nonverbal cues such as the body language of the person.

Practising sympathy, unlike empathy, does not imply that you share another’s feelings. Instead, you feel guilty or pity for the feelings of others. A sympathetic approach provides just a rudimentary comprehension of another’s circumstances. This comprehension is usually from your point of view, not theirs. Sympathy can often lead to uninvited counsel to assist the other person in coping with their emotions.

Empathy involves active listening (and not just hearing) on the part of the empath. Hearing is the sensory process that allows us to comprehend and perceive the sound waves from our environment. Listening, on the other hand, goes beyond hearing. It requires the person’s full attention, wherein you make sense of the words and sounds to develop an emotional response. This is where one should also take note of the nonverbal cues such as fidgeting hands or fingers, tightened sitting posture etc.

Show Understanding and Acceptance

It is important to show validation for how the other person is feeling. Validation is acknowledging that someone has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s a suitable feeling to have or the response we’d have in comparable circumstances. Validation sounds like: “I understand you’re furious right now; that must be frustrating.” Allowing our loved ones to see that we understand and accept their feelings might offer them the freedom to accept and move on.

Finally, it is so important to learn about the symptoms and triggers of a particular mental health disease for the person who is going through it. Moreover, one must take note of the fact that often symptoms look like something all of us probably go through daily, but it becomes a mental health issue when it starts interfering in our normal everyday functioning. The last thing one ought to be doing is gaslighting someone into thinking their issues aren’t valid or are trivial to not be taken seriously. 

Practical Tips to Help

Each mental illness, like all illnesses, has its own set of symptoms that appear at times of stress and understanding how those symptoms affect our loved ones is a vital part of being supportive. A person with an anxiety condition, for example, may have trouble concentrating or may feel tired and restless, all of which can lead to irritation and agitation.

How to Help Someone Experiencing a Panic Attack

Since I mentioned anxiety, I would like to share some tips (which worked for me and my friends at different points) on how to help someone who is experiencing a panic or anxiety attack.

  • Try to stay calm.
  • Try to help them get their breath in control. Practice simple breathing exercises with them. Encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Not everyone is comfortable with physical affection at such a time. Always ask before hugging or holding hands with the person. If they are not comfortable, maintain a safe distance.
  • Ask don’t assume. Don’t assume that if one trick works for one person, it would necessarily work for everyone. 
  • Remind them they are not alone. Engage in slow conversation or initiate a monologue.
  • Keep a glass of water nearby and make the person drink it when the symptoms of a panic attack seem to subside.
  • Ask them if they are comfortable in sharing what triggered them but don’t force them if they do not want to share.
  • Find further tips on Mind’s website.

If you are looking for further advice and support, The Student Advice and Wellbeing team can guide you on a range of issues. Get in touch:

Surabhi Sanghi is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing a master’s degree in South Asian Studies and Intensive Language (which also means she gets to be in London for one whole extra year). She has a background in history and is interested in the religions of South Asia. She is a dog person and her only wish is to be able to pet all the dogs in London.

Share this post