Comment on this article

Mental Health Disabilities: A Case for Empathy, Compassion, and Patience
by JJ Pionke

Abstract:.Mental health disabilities are one type of disability that is little understood and can often be intimidating. This article discusses a few ways in which to demystify mental health disabilities and assist patrons in a way that is both helpful and humanizing.


While disability is often seen as a monolithic concept, like most ideas, disability is made up of many different parts to create a whole. When the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) became law, most institutions interpreted the requirements as to be meant for physical disabilities. Because of this, the most common questions and discussions typically revolve around accommodations like rails, ramps, and routes. However, just like a finely crafted systematic review search, disability is nuanced and contains multitudes. One such area of nuance in regards to disability is mental health disabilities. Mental health disabilities however is also a large concept that is then broken down by specific condition. While there are differences in severity and how to interact with people with different conditions, there are core concepts that are useful when interacting with people with disabilities, including mental health disabilities. The core concepts, especially when interacting with people with mental health disabilities, are empathy, patience, and education.


Empathy should not be confused with sympathy. Brené Brown, in her excellent TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” points out that sympathy is when you feel pity for someone whereas empathy is where you can understand them and what they are experiencing. We often confuse sympathy and empathy. Brown also points out that sympathy pushes people apart whereas empathy brings people together. In libraries, empathy can be a powerful force when we interact with patrons and colleagues who have mental health disabilities. Part of empathy can be perspective taking. The adage, “walk a mile in their shoes” is particularly poignant when considering the range of mental health disabilities and how they manifest in human interaction. For instance, the first reaction to people who are different from ourselves or who are acting outside of accepted norms is usually fear and suspicion. However, unless the person is acting violently, observing behavior and then interacting with the person in a calm and practical way is far more likely to get a positive response than acting with hostility, suspicion, or pity. While this approach can be used for acute interactions when a person might be in crisis, the technique can also be used in day to day interactions. For instance, for a colleague who has depression, not forcing them to cheer up or smile but rather sitting with them and listening to them is far more likely to have a positive effect and alleviate the symptoms of depression, even for just a few moments.


In our fast paced world and work environments, when we are trying to help someone who is stuttering or struggling to talk, we generally finish their sentences for them and try to assist them as quickly as possible because there is other work to be done, or a line is forming, or the situation is awkward. Just as with empathy and compassion, lean in to the discomfort and wait patiently for the person to finish their questions and statements. The person on the receiving end of your patience will be grateful because you will have treated them like a normal human being. For example, several years ago, my voice box was damaged and part of the cure was to spend two weeks in vocal rest, also known as not talking or vocalizing. Unfortunately, my two weeks of silence coincided with a week-long training I was attending. While I used a text to speech program on my computer to share my ideas, I was often frustrated when people didn’t wait for me to finish typing out my ideas or they would talk over me. When it was revealed that I could in fact talk, I was accused of making the training cohort a guinea pig in some kind of social experiment. My experience of my two weeks of silence was one of frustration because the vocal world so often didn’t wait for me to finish writing or typing out my contributions to the discussion. I quickly learned that it was easier for me to not communicate because of the frustration factor. If a person with a disability has trouble communicating because they are non-verbal, have a stutter, have severe anxiety or some other condition, the act of reaching out for help usually happens because they genuinely really need help. Practice patience and let them communicate their needs to you in their own way. They will be thankful that you treated them like a human being.


One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to get educated. Demystifying mental health disabilities takes a lot of the uncertainty and fear out of them. Along these lines there is an excellent training program called Mental Health First Aid. The program lasts for eight hours, is low cost, and teaches not only about some of the most common mental health disabilities but also about how to interact with people who have a mental health disability and who are in crisis. There is also Project ENABLE, developed at Syracuse University. This training program is completely online, free, and encompasses many disabilities, including a special segment on autism. There are also numerous books and articles that talk about disability, accessibility, universal design, and assistive technologies.


People with disabilities come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities and at the core of who they are, are human. As a profession, it is up to us to meet our patrons where they are regardless of ability or difference. While mental health disabilities can be intimidating, so can anything that is different from ourselves. Practicing skills like empathy and patience, as well as getting educated on the basics of mental health disabilities and how those conditions manifest, will go a long way towards improving communication and interaction with both patrons and colleagues who have mental health disabilities.


Brown, B. (2010). “The power of vulnerability.” TED Talk.

Mental Health First Aid. (2018).

Project ENABLE.(2018).

Copyright 2018 by JJ Pionke.

About the author: JJ Pionke is the Applied Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on disability in the library.