How should we empathize with mentally ill people?

By Mark Alexander.

Why is it that human beings cannot find the proper balance of empathy toward people with mental illness? Even at this school, a small school where love, compassion and unity is emphasized, empathy is a tool that has been misused in some ways or not used at all by our faculty and by our peers.

When it comes to mental disorders and social disorders, people are much less empathetic than they ought to be. This is due to a number of reasons. For example, some may not believe in mental disorders, believing these to be excuses for people to act a certain way in public. You may not see mental health as a true problem and believe that it can be “prayed away.”

I have experienced mistreatment of people with social and/or mental disorders firsthand. The most recent one being a woman who had an emotional disorder.

She came to me and asked me to watch her service dog while she played dodgeball. The dog itself was not pleased so I walked it around to keep it from whining and causing a commotion. Unfortunately, the sound of dog tags bothered a professor who was testing that night, who requested I took the dog outside.

This woman had a breakdown over dodgeball, needing the help of her emotional support animal. The professor wanted the dog out and the woman as well. She tried to explain why the breakdown happened and that she needed her dog, but the professor was still oblivious to her emotional disorder. He said, and I quote, “I don’t care if you got hit by a garbage truck, that kind of commotion is unnecessary.” I was disappointed, especially when I have seen the other side of the spectrum. From no empathy to too much.

I have found that when it comes to mental disabilities, people are more empathetic, which can be good, but can sometimes be overdone to the point where it’s patronizing, condescending, and downright coddling.

A man with autism lives in my dorm, and has made a few women uncomfortable, whether it was by hugging them too long or failing to respect boundaries. For men, the man only socially annoys them, showing that he treats women and men differently. This man also occupies the community ballroom on the weekends and uses the community T.V. for hours at a time. This causes the community of my dorm to be less communal. The man has even been alleged to have performed masturbation in the ballroom. Although this is just rumor, preceding behaviors have caused others to believe this.

My problem, however, is not entirely with the man himself, although he can be problematic. The problem is that others will excuse his behavior because of his autism. Stating that he “can’t help it.” I find this unfair when I consider other autistic people on this campus who make better grades than I do or autistic friends and family I know back home that don’t behave this way.

Accommodations and reasonable understandings are one thing, and are very appreciated and help the matters, but excuses like this are unacceptable.

So where do we draw the line? When should we be empathetic? When is it too much or too little? Can we be stern and also understanding? And most importantly, how can we balance empathy when it comes to people with mental health problems?

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