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Compassion is ultimately the ability to completely understand and share in the feelings of another. It is a powerful tool that redirects blame and shame. Its intentions are to help the individual make a healthy connection to the problems that lay before them ultimately helping in the process of recovery. Compassion is the ability of being unconditional in a conditional world.

Compassion should never be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is a misguided source of care. Sympathy is an intense manifestation of sorrow and pity, but lacks in the ability to discern between empathy and responsibility. Empathy and sympathy make strange bedfellows. While both are filled with good intentions; it is sympathy that enables the right to make excuses and to overlook personal responsibility; through empathy we have a deeper understanding and emotional connection to the struggles of another. While empathy has a number of positive attributes and characteristics; its intentions are flawed. Not unlike its counterpart sympathy; empathy has an ability of motivating the caring nature of an individual. It is through this caring nature that an individual will often feel motivated to carry someone else’s luggage rather than teaching that individual to carry his or her own luggage. While the intentions of empathy and sympathy are purely altruistic; it is through such altruism that we may allow harm to become prevalent in our own lives.

Yale professor and psychologist, Dr. Paul Bloom discusses the common mis-leadings of empathy. He discusses how empathy can be limiting and ultimately allow harm to the individual providing care. “By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you are in pain and I feel your pain – I am feeling toward you. If you are anxious, I pick up  your anxiety. If you are sad and I pick up your sadness, I am being empathetic.” Empathy teaches us to take on the pain, the heartache, and the struggles of another. Thus, it is through an empathetic approach that we might prove vulnerable in our desire to provide care. Dr. Bloom’s argument is that we should consider a different pathway of care.

Compassion instills all of the positive attributes and qualities of empathy, but it recognizes that we must teach others to carry the weight of their own burdens, struggles and sorrows. It is the ultimate empowerment and liberation of the psychological-self.

It is through a compassionate heart that an individual is willing to go out of their way to help another, but with the clarity that they too must be mindful of their own needs. Compassion teaches us to show empathy and sympathy through a measured approach. It is neither self-serving or self-indulgent, rather it is concerned with the personal empowerment of others. Essentially, compassion is concerned about helping others to alleviate and prevent harm.

The compassionate individual has a desire to help in all perspectives of an individual’s life including the physical, mental and emotional. It is through this process of care that an individual should learn to be empowered. Empowerment is the ability to proclaim liberation, power, and authority over something. Empowerment is that ability of proving stronger, more confident and resilient. For an addict, it is claiming one’s right over the addiction. Empowerment is the ability to claim one’s right over any particular issue, as well as, accept personal responsibility of all aspects of one’s life. Empowerment is a platform for not only enabling an individual to resist past challenges and temptations, but to overcome the mindset of powerlessness and the lack of influence. Empowered individuals are unwavering individuals. Empowered individuals are tempered individuals who have been enabled to overcome, conquer and prevail over challenges in life. An empowered individual is capable of distinguishing the good from the bad. Empowerment is not only key for overcoming, but it provides the individual personal awareness into his or her own role in this game called life.

Compassion should strive to empower and show an unconditional spirit towards others. A compassionate heart is not limited by the recognition of those we know, but also includes those that we do not know. Whereas empathy is often limited to those that we have a personal relationship with; compassion drives home the notion that everyone is worthy of unconditional love, acceptance, approval, meekness, tenderness, and kindness. Compassion is the greatest  ally, because it instills in the heart of the vulnerable a need to prove strong and personally resilient. When I am compassionate, I am acting out of the  interest of another; whereas, when I am merely empathetic I may be acting out of my perceptions of morality and justice.

The benefits of compassion are fourfold: it has the ability to share in the feelings of another; to offer unconditional comfort, support and love unto to another; it teaches us to  recognize the pain of another without having us walk in the individual’s shoes; and to prove the ultimate accountability partner of another. While many of the positive attributes of empathy and sympathy are embodied into the concept of compassion; compassion is capable of recognizing the need to separate our lives from those that we serve.

Reflecting back, I recall making a common mistake of many of my fellow clinicians. I would take on my patient’s pain and sorrow, rather than trying to empower them to take on their own life’s struggles. As a parent, I still fight this battle of trying to eliminate my children’s pain and angst by carrying it for them, rather than teaching them to carry the weight of their own life challenges. Compassionate empowerment teaches another to be the captain of their own unique vessel. Addicts need a strong advocate to help them to prove personally resilient, uncompromising and unwavering. Addicts need to eliminate their excuses, blame and shame; and begin taking on the cloak of personal responsibility.

An addict that is not empowered will find it difficult to overcome the challenges of life; but for the addict that is taught personal self-empowerment, they will prove resilient. Compassion reminds us that we are capable of overcoming and facing life’s challenges. A compassionate heart is a sincere heart.

Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.
References Provided Upon Request


Approximately four million students will enroll in college for the first time this year, and the transition to university life can be overwhelming. Coupled with the known fact that many mental health issues often emerge during an individual’s early twenties, with the onset of most mental illnesses peaking from ages 18-21, this is a critical time for students and a crucial time for you, the parents, to have a mental health checklist.

When students have mental health crises, parents often feel overwhelmed and unsure about how to help. Awareness and treatment are essential in order to prevent crises that result in failing classes, dropping out, severe emotional issues or, far worse, suicide. Among the most common problems seen with college students are anxiety disorders, depression, alcohol and drug use, psychotic episodes, and relationship difficulties, among others.

Parents frequently need help addressing their adult child’s mental health and educational needs simultaneously. So, as a parent, what can you do? Here are some tips for supporting your child as he or she navigates the unfamiliar waters of university life.

Prepare Your Child

It is very likely that your child, or one of her roommates or friends, will encounter a mental health issue while she is away at college. Talk with her about mental health and let her know she’s not alone. Keeping lines of communication open will help her to feel comfortable that she can come to you with any problems she may experience without fear of being judged.

Anticipate Increased Exposure to Alcohol

Problem solve in advance for the challenges your child may encounter when navigating increased exposure to alcohol and other substances in campus settings. Important topics to review include binge vs. responsible drinking; pre-partying; the role of the “designated driver”; party pacts to stay safe and together; alcohol amnesty and related policies; hazing and the definition of consensual sex. Broaching these issues with parental support, will empower your child to make wise decisions on their own. More than a third of US first-year college students do not drink alcohol at all. Explore campus sober living options, peer support groups and substance-free student programming as specific strategies for maintaining sobriety.

Have a Plan

All students, but particularly those who have already experienced mental health issues, should have a plan in place in case things get too difficult to handle. If your child is already under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, make plans to continue that care with a clinician closer to college. Have regular check-ins with family members and friends to monitor any changes, and make an appointment with the campus mental health center to determine what services are available. Students can pre-register for disability support services to access helpful accommodations. Having a solid plan in place will make it easier for your child to obtain mental health services should they become necessary.


Stay in Touch

Make time for regular phone conversations in addition to texting your college-aged child. It’s easier to hear in his voice when something is bothering him than it is to read into a text message. Keep an eye out for symptoms of depression, including sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, restlessness, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts, unexplained aches and pains, and tearfulness. A sudden drop in academic performance can be another sign that support is needed.

Forget Stigma

If your child is experiencing mental health issues, prioritize getting help over the fear of tarnishing her transcript or reputation. For some students, a leave from school is needed to recover and get back on track. Each college has its own policy about granting medical leave, so you should contact the student health center or the Dean of Students’ office to find out the procedure for taking a temporary leave of absence. Purchasing tuition insurance can ease financial stress in the event of a crisis and leave of absence.

Encourage Healthy Habits

It’s easy to let good eating, sleep and exercise habits fall by the wayside while living away from home for the first time. Many students sacrifice physical health for an extra hour of studying or staying out with friends. However, the importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise cannot be overstated, particularly as they relate to overall mental health. Rather than lecturing your student about eating her vegetables, ask how she feels when she eats well or when she sleeps poorly. Help her to connect self-care with emotional stability.

Learn About College Mental Health Services

Call the student counseling center and ask about the range of services they provide. Make an appointment to talk with the Counseling Center Director or other professional staff member. Many college mental health services will be limited, so it’s important to see what may be available off-campus at a local counseling center or hospital as well. Many centers keep a list of convenient off-campus providers who work well with students.

Allow Mistakes

Perfection is not a realistic goal, and it’s important to let your child know that you support him or her no matter what. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life, and we can learn from them. A perfect GPA isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of your child’s emotional well-being.

For additional information on managing a student mental health crisis, visit McLean Hospital’s College Mental Health Program webpage.

Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, is the director of the College Mental Health Program and an instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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