Empathy – Critical and Elusive

Helping others is dependent on your ability to be empathetic, not just your knowledge and skill. In the world of health this may seem obvious, however empathy often gets lost in the complexity of the health care system.

I began pondering the sometimes dire absence of empathy in health care after watching Peter Attia’s TED Talk “Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem?.” In his talk Attia discusses the practice of blaming obese patients for their health and questions the current way we think about obesity. He starts the talk with a story about a patient whom he treated. He explains that he provided exemplary medical treatment but failed as a person. He says he failed as a person because rather than being empathic he subconsciously blamed the patient for her condition.

In today’s U.S. culture it’s easy to blame people for health conditions like their weight; it’s easy to blame them for all their unhealthy choices. But, what does blaming achieve?

A large portion of my current work is in substance abuse prevention. Empathy is sometimes so hard. When I read the latest horror story about drug use, it’s hard to stop thoughts like “How can ANYONE start meth? There’s just no upside.” But, thoughts like that don’t help prevent anyone from using drugs and they certainly don’t help people trying to recover from addiction. Again, it’s so easy to blame people for using drugs. But if we want to help we must get beyond the finger pointing. We must acknowledge that we are trying to help individual humans, and that those individuals are struggling. Their struggle is their own, but we do not have to be another barrier, we can be a positive force.

I was struck by the power of empathy after watching Eleanor Longden’s TED Talk, “The voices in my head.” She talks about her struggle with schizophrenia. When she was first diagnosed it seemed her world would end. However in her fight for peace she got help from someone who told her she could work with the voices in her head. He believed in her and her ability to lead a safe and happy life. He was right. She was able to master the voices in her head. By simply offering support and understanding he changed the course of her recovery.

Health is charged. Health is mysterious. Empathy is simple. But in its simplicity it is easy to overlook. Don’t.