Empathy is essential for positive mental health because it allows us to develop stronger relationships with others and cultivate a sense of compassion and understanding.

Empathy helps us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience their feelings, thoughts or attitudes. But it’s not just about understanding someone else’s perspective, it’s also about understanding our own feelings, leading to increased self-awareness and a greater sense of well-being.

Exploring empathy does not undo or make right what someone has done, but when we are intentional about having empathy, we can choose to show compassion over judgment. In a world so deeply divided, we need to be able to listen to each other and connect.

Here’s how Kyle’s experience with empathy has improved his mental well-being.

Kyle Cheesman

Have you ever royally messed up? Like you wake up in the morning and you think, “Thank God it was just a dream!” until you realize it wasn’t.

I remember sitting in a jail cell. The worst part was I still had to call my mom and tell her where I am. I’ve never had a father around, so she was it. She was all I ever had. I didn’t want to put her through this; I didn’t want to disappoint her.

My Mom is my Hero. She literally saved my life.

My mother’s unwavering support

When I was five years old, we went to this place called Kakabeka falls outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It’s a beautiful place with a beach and a waterfall. When we got to the beach, my mom stood next to me pointing out at the buoys in the water that marked out the boundaries and explaining the dangers of the undertow that can pull you into the water.

As I stepped into the water, I remember feeling the mushy sand in-between my toes and the cold wave rippling under my arms as I began to jump up and down in the waist-high water. My mom told me not to jump too far, but I was in my own world.

I was jumping along, shuffling forward with each jump when all of a sudden, the ocean’s floor was no longer beneath me. I quickly caught one last breath before I went under and immediately began to panic. I started swallowing water almost instantly as I tried to frantically reach up for air.

Eventually, a sense of calm came over me as I stared up at the surface of the water looking at the way the sun rippled on top of the water. My vision began to close in and I could feel my heart slowing to a stop.

Then in what felt like a blink, I woke up on the beach in my mother’s arms, wrenching and coughing all the water left in my lungs. My vision slowly coming back and my hearing becoming clearer as mom patted my back and reassured me, “It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.”

This whole event took place in under a minute or 2, and she would never see herself as a hero in this story, but I do.

I never doubted if my mom was going to be there for me when I needed her the most.

There was this one point in time shortly after highschool when I was working in a mine and going to the gym a lot. I started to notice my left ankle was hurting. Months go by and I ignored it until I couldn’t anymore. The next thing I know, my back began seizing up at random times, and when I  went to get athe doctor’s opinion, they kept telling me that I was young and to make sure I was stretching often. That it should fix itself. Instead, it just kept getting worse.

I remember the feeling of collapsing on the stairs and tumbling to the bottom, unable to stand, reaching up to the railing trying to pull myself up but failing over and over. It turns out I had a collapsed disk in my lower back and it was resting on a nerve.

At my lowest point, I was pretty much bedridden; I couldn’t even get myself up in the morning. My mom would go to work at 7 a.m. and come back home at 8:30 a.m. so she could help me out of bed and get me started on my day. My mom was cooking for me, cleaning for me, taking me to doctor’s appointments, and advocating for me to get the help I needed. I felt like I was a small child again unable to care for myself. It was my mom who carried me through that entire season right up until I got the back surgery. Throughout that entire time,  I always knew that the pain I felt wasn’t just mine, but hers too.

How kindness and empathy changed my life

This is why it killed me when I had to pick up the phone that morning at the police station. After fingerprints, mugshots and standing in a cold cell for over 7 hours, I finally called her to tell her that I got a DUI and that she needed to find a way to work because her SUV was impounded.

I was broken, ashamed and angry.

I wanted to blame drinking and driving on friends and on peer-pressure, but I knew I was the only one to blame. At that moment, sitting there on the phone, I hated myself and I projected all that self-hatred onto my mom and said things I didn’t mean and I wish I could take back.

I felt as though I was now a criminal, and for the rest of my life, that’s all anyone would be able to see.

I remember the first real conversation my mom and I had after I was released from the holding cell. She gave me space to apologize, to talk through my fears and the pain of my failure. We stood there in the kitchen and she just hugged me while I cried.

My mom never saw me as a criminal. She saw me just as I was: A kid who really messed up and just needed a hug.  She showed me what real kindness and empathy looked like.

She told me, “I know growing up without a dad has been hard, but it’s time for you  to step up and take control of your own life.” And that’s exactly what I have been able to do.

Now it’s my turn to be the one who extends a hand to someone who is hurting or gives a hug to someone who feels broken, just like my mom did for me.

A couple of weeks after the DUI, I got a book for Christmas called How to get out of your own way by Tyrese Gibson. This book changed my life. At one point in the book the author says, “I have learned to surround myself with people who are the things I want to become, at some point I will become them.”

You need to surround yourself with kindness and empathy to become kindness and empathy. And for me, that started with my mom.

Learn more

Mental health is an ongoing journey and it is important to make sure that we all take the time to check in with ourselves, our loved ones and our mental well-being.

LiveDifferent Circles equips young people with the skills and tools needed to build positive mental health. Through conversations on authenticity, empathy, growth, resilience, altruism and values, youth develop the self-confidence to deal with the issues they’re facing and take positive action in their communities.

Want to join people like Kyle and help youth across Canada build positive mental health? Become a Road Team Volunteer!

Want to learn more about Circles and how it can make a difference in your community? See how LiveDifferent can help!

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