In Deed, Indeed – Compassion and Empathy

Anti_Stigmatization.jpgI find the subject of compassion compelling. I believe this aspect of human-kind is a pivotal component in successful negotiation of the human experience where family and community is concerned. Pivotal, because in the absence of compassion there is stagnant disconnect. I suppose if one were to live solitary in the woods and could sustain the needs that promote healthy survival without interactions with fellow man, compassion and empathy would be unnecessary provisions in the condition of living. A rare few would decide to do that. Even if it were plausible to do so, we don’t willingly choose to. We desire the interaction of others. It promotes a sense of inclusion and well-being. There can be no perception of that belonging without some amount of compassion and empathy echoing within the dynamic of human interaction. To that end, it’s fundamental.

PicI’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this subject. Increasingly so in the past several years because I have particular need in my personal life to understand this trait so that I might better manage my own feelings of disappointment related to this subject where my son’s constant battle with chronic major depressive disorder is concerned. I aspire for a kind of closure that would facilitate my utilizing that gained energy toward increased focus in supporting my son’s health, as well as to the assistance of other’s goals of enhanced wellness where addiction and mental health related issues are concerned. As a direct result of my experiences related to my unavoidable involvement and through investments in this edification, I accept that some people, for varying reasons, have a lesser capacity to act in service in even the simplest forms of support and encouragement in relation to the compassion they experience. I would go one step further and communicate that this kind of diminished capacity is especially prevalent with regard to the subject of compassion as it concerns addiction and depressive mental illnesses.

There are slightly varying definitions for the word compassion; differentiating from empathy, sympathy, and pity can be a bit tedious as they are often used in description of one another. However, it is defined in the GoodWiki pages from the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley, as:

… a feeling of sorrow, or concern for another person’s suffering or need accompanied by a subsequent desire to alleviate the suffering.

Note that it doesn’t read:

… a feeling of sorrow or concern for another person’s suffering or need that results in a desire, followed by an action, to alleviate suffering.

There is documented research explaining why the latter, enhanced definition would be inaccurate. I think the explanation of this holds inherent truths, specifically as it relates to societal stigmas.

It appears, based on researched evidence, that benevolence is directly impacted by the way individuals process their own response to feeling compassion. The resulting self-regulation of that emotion determines whether the individual will act in an altruistic, benevolent manner in connection to another’s recognized need, or that a person may instead process their initial feeling of emotional response in a manner that produces subsequent personal distress. A personal distress response will not necessarily result in an action-oriented behavior aimed at easing the pain of someone else. The research supports that sympathy motivates people to act benevolently, while personal distress can cause an “egoistic” response. There are even polar opposite physiological responses to the individualized processing of sympathy and personal distress. Studies show that sympathy can produce a decrease in heart rate, while personal distress, on the other hand, can initiate, you guessed it, an increase in heart rate.

Okay, so there it is. The terms “personal distress” and “egoistic” explain a great deal, at least to my understanding. Basically, what I gleaned from my reading is that some people act as a result of their feelings of compassion in a way that they believe will serve the need of someone else. Others act in a way that would serve to assist in the avoidance of further investment outside of their initial emotional response. The study supported that this is due to a self-perceived anticipation of encountering “stress,” thus “personal distress,” associated with that investment.

When the tears are not enoughI have a personal need to better understand the emotion of empathy. This subject of compassionate response as it relates to addiction and depressive illness helps serve my goal in assembling a reasonable, thoughtfully-woven perspective as to why I witness a rampant lack of action-oriented compassion in relation to those suffering the isolation they often experience in coping with the effects of the disease. Frankly, the perspective I have been forming over the years is affected, too, by my inexpressible disdain for the many uninformed commentaries and downright hateful, critical judgments that occur frequently in our society with regard to the clinical and social realities of addiction and depressive mental illness. There exists a huge amount of conscious and unconscious perpetuation of stigmatic energy associated with the disease. We ALL witness the demoralizing result, and collectively we are all allowing it to continue. The presence of this stigma assists to impede advancements in treatments and cures. I’m unaware of another disease whose proliferation as well as successful treatment is dependent upon pro-socially motivated emotional response, or is as innately rooted in how we act or don’t act in terms of compassion.

One result of this stigma is that it causes a diminished capacity in recognizing the disease as one of physiological origin. It’s a complex issue, as we tend to be wired to judge the symptomatology of the disease as character-related. Subsequently, we often distance ourselves when we perceive that another’s challenges are a result of willful “bad behavior,” rather than understanding that the behavior is one resulting from the presence of a physiological, or psychological impairment. In contrast, when we witness someone struggling with what we perceive as a physical ailment, we are much more likely to respond with an encouraging, compassion-related action. As well, this compassion-related action is also more likely to occur in response to the perceived emotional suffering of another when we see it as result of physical injury and disease. Because we are not as apt to recognize the behavioral impairment and subsequent choices relating to that behavior as stemming from physiological components occurring from disruptions in normal brain functions, we don’t respond properly in terms of need, treatment and cure. Even when the behavioral symptomatology is recognized as having physiological origin, apathy still occurs. The possibility of self-perceived personal distress is a contributing factor in this apathetic response. The bottom line is that we fall unwitting victim and perpetrator, of sorts, in the amplification of a rebounding, vicious cycle of disease, which impacts the patient, the family, and ultimately the community. It is a disease of phenomenal scale as it relates to family dynamic and its reverberations in societal context.

This leads me to what I perceive is a logical conclusion. In order to restrain and thus improve the far-reaching, devastating effects of addiction and depressive mental illness, there is requirement, first and foremost, in reversing the stigma associated. It needs to happen now. The cure is dependent on this focus. Every single person is impacted by the presence of the symptomatology of this disease. Do that math. It should not require calculative tools to ascertain that we are witnessing an ever-increasing need for counter actions that will reduce the unparalleled, prolific resonance associated with addiction and depressive mental illness stigma.

I have invested in supporting my child in his battle with the life-threatening symptomatology associated with chronic Major Depressive Disorder. We had to get a grip, or we were going to lose him. Admittedly, we have not done everything right. It’s impossible. It’s exceedingly difficult to always know exactly what to do in regard to the symptomatology. But disconnect?… NOT AN OPTION. So, we persevere, everyday, inspired through responsible, dedicated love. It’s hard to hang there, at times. The symptomatology sucks up all manner of resources. I’ve referred to the investment in my son’s illness as like being, at times, “tied to a tornado,” with respect to the illness’s unpredictability. Its power to devastate everything in its path is increased if it is not responsibly, compassionately treated. I wouldn’t dream of presuming to understand anyone else’s parameters of engagement. Every case is unique. I’m just trying to be clear that I would rather be tied to a tornado than freed of that connection through his departure from this earth as a result of his illness.

A great deal of the challenge I personally experience in connection with the disease is a direct result of the associated stigma. I have developed an inexpressible disdain for the many uninformed comments and downright hateful, counterproductive, critical judgments that I am exposed to in our society in regard to it. You witness them, too. But, I have acquired an improved understanding as to why some of us don’t take our feelings of compassion to the next step of responsible action — action of encouragement and service to another person in need. I get it, alright. But still, I experience disappointments related to the fact that I, and many others, shouldn’t have a need to work so hard to understand this counter-productive response to the disease in the first place. That energy would better serve to support those struggling to cope with the disease.

GapSomething else I am forced to recognize? All that logical assertion serves little good. All the cognitive conclusions in the world will never be adequate in facilitating a filling-in of the shameful gap created by rampant, societal disregard. No… That gap isn’t going to fill itself, making itself a pretty, little blossoming cherry tree-lined, cobblestone path to the land of, “Nobody Has Drug Addiction Tendencies or Mental Health Issues, USA.” Nice place, I suppose, if you can get there. Since I’ve been trained to expect the unexpected due to my experiences with my son’s illness and have also learned to be responsible for creating my own sense of hope from what is, at times, seemingly, hopeless, I’ll keep a suitcase packed, just in case. I’d be thankful to relocate. But in absence of that reality, I believe the bridging of disease, to treatment and cure, specifically related to this human condition, begins with an action-related, compassion-born foundation. We are all in this quest together, because together, we have created much of the need.

We are not solitary creatures. We exist in a family, community, society, and global scope.We need each other. We all intensely desire a sense of acceptance and inclusion on some level. Existence in this spirit promotes wellness, so it makes perfect sense that addiction and mental health related stigmas would serve in opposition of health.

We need to do better in honoring the state of humanity as it relates to addiction and depressive illness. It’s not enough just to feel compassion or empathy. Dedicated, heart-driven, solicitous, actions serve prevention, serve treatment, and serve cure.


Batson, C.D., Fultz, J., Schoenrade, P.A. (1987). Distress and Empathy: Two Qualitatively Distinct Vicarious Emotions with Different Motivational Consequences. Journal of Personality, 55(1), 19-39. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1987.tb00426.x

Eisenberg, N. (2002). Empathy-related emotional responses, altruism, and their socialization. In R. J. Davidson & A. Harrington (Eds.), Visions of compassion: Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists examine human nature (pp. 131-164). London: Oxford University Press.

Zhou, Q., Valiente, C., Eisenberg, N. (2003). Empathy and its measurement. In S. J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (pp. 269-284). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Patti Herndon

Patti Herndon's son was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at age 14. She is an addictions and mental health advocate. She is a counseling student trained in a therapeutic approach known as Motivational Interviewing (Miller, Ph.d and Rollnick, Ph.d). Her studies focus is; the processes of positive behavioral change as it relates to evidence based addiction recovery. She has served as a parents advisory board member for a large non-profit organization with the goal of helping parents intervene, successfully, in their teen's substance use. Website:
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