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As an ER nurse working in a big hospital, I take care of many kinds of patients, including psychiatric patients. I don’t really like using the term “psychiatric” to describe individuals with mental illness, though. It’s too harsh and stigmatized. It renders healthcare providers vulnerable to becoming sympathetic instead of empathetic, or worse, indifferent. I’ll admit that psych patients can be the hardest patients we treat because how does one even attempt to heal a problem with a person’s mind and emotions and spirit? Mental illness is not cured like a broken bone or cut, in which the body dynamically stabilizes and works hard to heal itself. Rather, with mental illness, the pattern is often self-destructive instead of self-healing, and there is rarely a cure but instead stabilization and coping. Always the stubborn organ, the brain inflicts self-doubt and torture and breaks down. Medical advances have given us insight into mental illness, but not enough. However, that is a discussion for another time. The issue that brings my pen to the paper is depression, suicide, and everything we inadvertently do to make it worse and what we can do to make it better. Yes, you and me. Maybe you’re thinking that this doesn’t relate to you or no one you know could be struggling with something like this. But hang on.

I’ll admit the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” that took the internet by storm definitely got me thinking about the issue of bullying and loneliness and suicide, but my desire to bring awareness and change to our culture started long before I even had a Netflix account (hint: that was a long time ago). It started when I finally let myself deal with memories from eighth and ninth grade, or rather recollections, which I then blamed myself for and later told myself to forget when I learned to heal and now recognize as cruel bullying. I don’t want to go into detail about how I was targeted, but it started with a few girls I considered my friends shutting me out from the group and starting rumors about me. Eventually they created a large Facebook message with many kids from our youth groups that targeted and made fun of me. I was added to the group and felt like was on trial and had to defend myself.

I had low self-esteem and already felt like something was wrong with me because I’d always been a “different” kid, so I thought maybe I deserved it. It tore holes in my confidence and my ability to trust people. I went through some dark times and wondered if I’d ever make it to the other side. But I survived. I made wonderful new friends once I parted ways with that group and moved on and let it go. Even though they never knew what was going on, my family was supportive and loving. With making friends I began to feel like I was worth something, and throughout (often despite of) college I leaned that my worth was not something to be earned or imparted by other people.

Like I said, I got through it. I was blessed. It made me stronger and now I have the opportunity to take care of others and try to show them that there is a way out. Because some stories end very differently. All downward spirals can be traced to a point of origin before they plunge into the dark. Even though trying to find the words to say to someone who is hurting can be the hardest thing we ever do, we have to find them. And when there’s nothing to say, then we have to be present. We have to see into someone else’s pain and loneliness and be willing to fight for them when they cannot fight for themselves. I hate the band-aid phrase “you are not alone” because even though it is well-meaning, it does nothing for the person who truly feels alone. Again, an example of sympathy versus empathy. Sympathy gives a pat on the back and does the talking. Empathy sits on the floor with you and listens. Empathy empowers, sympathy shuts down.

I’ve had this recurring dream at night where I accidentally cut my thumb with a big kitchen knife, and as the pain sears and blood springs to the surface and drops to the floor, I wake up. I wake up clenching my jaw and knowing the pain like I know how a dream is not always just a dream, is it? No, I never self-harmed or was suicidal, but friends of mine have been and I can recall their pain. Pain is a pattern that is remembered, but I choose to believe that it can empower us to reach out to others and make us human. We’ve all been victims and we’ve all hurt others. But let’s change the culture we live in starting with our neighborhoods, our schools, our universities, our social groups, our hospitals, and our cities. Open your eyes, be brave, listen, and speak out for others. We’re never too far gone to learn new habits, and just like picking up an instrument or tennis, we can learn the language of empathy and change the environment we live in.


Author: Christy Wornom
Author Bio: Christy is an ER nurse, writer, graphic designer, and outdoor enthusiast who is passionate about social justice, healthcare reform, and a well-brewed cup of coffee.
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1 Comment

  1. “Even though trying to find the words to say to someone who is hurting can be the hardest thing we ever do, we have to find them. And when there’s nothing to say, then we have to be present.”

    Thank you for explaining the difference between sympathy and empathy ❤️ This is an instrumental distinction to understand in order to be of better service to others. Thank you again, for your analysis and opening up about your story.


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