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Biological Explanations of Mental Illness Decrease Empathy for Sufferers

Posted January 20, 2015

Many people who suffer from a mental illness find comfort in the idea that their problems stem from biological processes in the brain. They feel it lends support to their condition being as real and legitimate as any other clinically significant ailment.

Biochemical explanations of mental illness decreases physicians‘ empathy towards patients. Image credit: Allan Ajifo via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Biochemical explanations of mental illness decreases physicians‘ empathy towards patients. Image credit: Allan Ajifo via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

However, a multitude of studies conducted in the past have shown that biological accounts of psychopathology stigmatise patients with mental health issues because they make their predicament look hard-wired and unchangeable.

Now, new research is showing that this prejudice extends beyond the public eye and into the offices of mental health professionals.

Matthew Lebowitz and Woo-young Ahn have published a paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrating that more biological explanations of mental illness decrease the level of empathy mental health workers usually feel towards their patients.

In a series of studies, the authors of the paper read descriptions of hypothetical patients with social phobia, depression and schizophrenia to over two hundred psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers.

Some of these descriptions were accompanied by purely biological explanations, focusing on genes and brain chemistry, while others offered psychosocial accounts, based on traumatic life experiences and effects of stressful environments.

When the symptoms were explained through recourse to pure biology, study subjects consistently rated their empathy for the sufferers as lower.

“Biological explanations are like a double-edged sword,” said Matthew Lebowitz from Yale University and lead author of the paper. “They tend to make patients appear less blameworthy but the overemphasis on biology to explain psychopathology can be dehumanizing by reducing people to mere biological mechanisms.”

When presented with biological explanations the study subjects were also more pessimistic about the usefulness of psychotherapy, which is worrying because certain forms of psychotherapy have been shown to be effective at tackling various mental disorders.

Study co-author Woo-young Ahn stressed that biochemical accounts of mental health, while important, should not be indulged at the expense of other explanations.

“We’re certainly not saying that people should ignore biological factors when studying mental disorders, but it’s crucial to understand biology as something that’s part of all human experience, rather than something that separates so-called mentally ill people from everyone else.”

One drawback of the study is its lack of a control group, which would have helped the researchers distinguish whether psychosocial explanations increased empathy or whether biological explanations decreased it.

The authors also noted that even though the descriptions they supplied to mental health professionals were rather simplified, their findings are still robust enough to give cause for concern.

Sources: study abstract,,

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