Empathy and Experience Necessary in Depression Treatment

Christopher Lukas Health Guide
  • A very interesting article in the New York Times Science section of 4/24/07 is worth commenting upon.

    It asks, does a psychiatrist need to have experienced depression in order to be able to treat depression?

    The larger issue: what happens when you feel that your battle with depression requires someone who has been through your particular life problems to help you get through your mental wars?

    On the surface, this feels right, doesn’t it? Don’t you want someone who truly understands your needs, your fights, your life experiences? How can a therapist get your pain and help you get out from under your pain if he/she hasn’t felt your pain?
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    On second thought, though, consider this: If you need someone who has had your life experiences, why stop at the depression itself? Why not require that a therapist have shared your other life experiences: the death of a spouse; a family suicide. Or, to go further, why not want your therapist to have the same DNA/genetic structure that may have caused your clinical depression?

    Seen this way, it becomes clear that the key need in a psychotherapist of any stripe is that he/she be empathic (which is what the article said), which means be able to feel your pain without having to have undergone the same experiences. This is a particular ability that seems to transcend any particular life history. Some people have it, others do not. I’ve had enough psychotherapy in my own life to know that I don’t care whether my shrink has or has not had my life experiences. What I want is someone to listen and respond to my needs.

    By the way, this doesn’t have to be a psychologist or a social worker. The ability to empathize and give good listening time to a person may not depend on a degree after someone’s name. Very often, a good friend can empathize with your needs.

    A case in point is a neighbor of ours. He was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. He seems to be handling the news well, but his wife is having trouble with it. They have two pre-teen sons, he’s out of work, and they have high overhead. We think the wife is in danger of burn-out.

    I can counsel her on this and offer her my love and support – even some suggestions as to how to deal with her anxiety – without a) having a spouse with brain cancer; b) having two sons; c) even without a degree in psychology. Because I can feel her discomfort and her anticipation of the worst, even while hoping for the best.
Published On: May 14, 2007