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Expand your empathy

Whether they realize it or not, one of the most commonly used phrases by students at this school is “I want to kill myself.”

This usually comes as a throwaway comment after seeing a poor test score or forgetting to bringing an assignment to class—something that isn’t going to matter in the long-run.

The students who use that phrase are rarely actually willing to feel a coarse rope digging into their neck, squeezing out their last breath. Or actually willing to douse themselves in petrol and feel it burn off their skin. But that’s just the nature of slang, isn’t it? All the time, people say things that they don’t mean literally.

The thing is, we would never act so flippantly with language about cancer, AIDS or another serious medical condition. We don’t walk around saying, “Man, I wish I had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy!”  When our friends or family members suffer from an illness or a physical injury, even if it’s temporary, we make an effort to sympathize with and comfort them, not make a joke out of it.

This is fairly easy because we can see the physical pain and scars that are left by injury and illness. And that ultimately explains why so many people struggle to empathize with the mentally ill: we rarely see their pain. We think that, as long as they aren’t physically injured, people are perfectly normal. We don’t think about the tragedy that might plague someone suffering from mental health issues or about the tremendous amount of effort and energy that these people must expend to go about their daily lives. Many lose hours of their lives going to and from therapists, experience family tension or feel guilt for living with something that they have no control over.

But at the end of the day, even the smalles of actions can help those around us who struggle with mental illness. Make a conscious effort to empathize with your peers, and maybe next time you’re about to joke about wanting to kill yourself, think twice before you say it aloud.