Throughout October 2021, staff and students from our Mental Health Nursing team in the School of Health Sciences are sharing series of blog posts covering important mental health topics and looking at mental health within our University community.

The next post in the series is from Grant King, Lecturer in Nursing (mental health), who discusses the importance of empathy.

“I think that [it] is a profound humanistic idea and ideal; that most of us have the ability to improve the lives of others by simple, and sincerely, being interested in them.”

Grant King

Our second-year mental health nursing students are currently participating in a module where they are learning about therapeutic interpersonal skills. Over the last few weeks, we have talked about active listening, reflecting back thoughts and feelings, setting boundaries and professional values. This week we spent some time talking about a subject that I’m very passionate about – empathy. There are varying definitions of empathy, but they all tend to reflect something like this – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Whilst that is a helpful conceptual definition, mental health nursing is practice-based, and as such we need to think about what empathy means in a real-world context. We can never truly know how another feels. We will never truly understand what someone else is going through. No matter how clearly and articulately someone may describe their inner experience to us, there will always be aspects of it ‘lost in translation’. We may interpret words differently from their intended use; our own judgment and bias will influence what we pay attention to and our own internal experience will distract us at times. As such, what is empathy then, in its truest, most practical sense?

I’d suggest that this ‘practical’ empathy, at its core, is the sincere desire to understand someone else’s experience. Along with this type of ‘compassionate curiosity’, we also need to use the techniques noted above to sensitively and, as safely as possible, help the person describe their world. The interpersonal skills the students are practicing help to fine tune the detail so that our understanding can be as close to the person’s truth as it can be.

If a person truly feels that someone is genuinely interested in them then that person will experience change; that change occurs in many domains, psychologically, socially and biologically. I think that that is a profound humanistic idea and ideal; that most of us have the ability to improve the lives of others by simply, and sincerely, being interested in them.

Get help with mental health:

Counselling Service
The Counselling Service offers short-term counselling to current Dundee University students and staff. 

We have a team of counsellors with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, and our sessions are free. 

Counselling provides a safe space for you to talk about your issues or concerns. Our sessions are friendly, supportive and confidential. It’s healthier to explore it with an experienced counsellor than bottle it up and never see an improvement. And if we can’t help you, we’ll let you know and we may also suggest other sources of help. 

University guide
Around one in four people will experience a mental health difficulty at some point, so it’s possible that some students and staff will experience this while at university.

Mental health issues vary hugely from person to person so what works for someone else may not work for you. You may be able to help yourself through a change in behaviour, or it may be helpful to get support from a trained professional. Visit the University’s online guide for getting help with your mental health.