The best nurse I ever had walked beside me and never got in my way. She would appear unobtrusively by my side and gently encourage me to get off my bed and go for walks with her. She hardly said a thing to me, but I could feel her calmness and acceptance through all the static of my distress. Other nurses got in my way; they tore off my blankets, threatened me, berated me for being inappropriate or for not facing the world, or gave me strange looks when I expressed my pain.
In their training and professional development, nurses learn many things – much of it is irrelevant to the experience of the person using the service. I do not remember any of the nurses I encountered for their professional skills. But I do remember them for their human qualities. Above all, I remember the nurses who were kind and compassionate.
Compassion is hard to teach and impossible to enforce, but it is the single most important attribute any mental health professional needs to develop. Compassion means being able to stand in the shoes of the other and be with the person in her or his distress. It allows the helper to stand on the ledge between deflecting the other person’s pain and losing herself or himself in it. Compassion takes a strong sense of self, patience and an acceptance of difference.
Unfortunately, compassion cannot thrive in services that control people and pathologise their experience. A recovery-based service promotes people’s autonomy and respects their subjectivity; this is the best setting for compassion to grow. Wherever we work in the mental health system we have a responsibility to foster compassion, not only in our one-to-one relationships with the people who use the service and our colleagues, but in creating a service environment that encourages empowering and respectful relationships at all levels.