Empathy, Always

While I am not a medical student in any way, shape, or form, there were way aspects of reading “When Do Medical Students Lose Their Empathy?” by Dr. Sonia Henry that resonated with me. I studied social work in my undergrad and am now in school for student affairs (helping in nature professions) and I saw connections between both and being a graduate student in general. First, Dr. Henry talked about the pressure and anxiety she felt being in school—while once again, I am in not medical school, but I think a lot of graduate students in other disciplines could also feel this way. I know that as I have continued in my program, I have had times where I have had anxiety and have been stressed out. I think it is universal to want to succeed when seeking graduate degrees and knowing the work it takes to achieve a graduate degree is high.                         Personally, I know that I have also rationalized my feelings of being overwhelmed with “everyone feels this way, its normal”, just as the article talked about. I am fortunate that I have a great support system in place to help me get through those times of feeling overwhelmed. However, I think more emphasis on mental health should take place in graduate programs if we know how common those feelings are for students. For example, I think it is great that Virginia Tech offers weekly drop sessions with Cook Counseling for graduate students. However, I think we need to make it more interwoven with actual programs to show students that while you should be challenged in graduate school, you should not always feel completely overwhelmed and what to do if you are.

Another aspect of this article that resonated with me was her point about losing her empathy. The author talked about how she had a patient that was given horrendous unexpected news and she did not think much of it until later in the day. Dr. Henry talked about how she went into this profession because she wanted to care for others and currently was finding herself losing that aspect of herself. I have heard this before from professions in fields that experience crisis routinely, that after a while you can become desensitized to crisis level situations because you are around them so much or you are just moving through the motions. While, my current area does experience some crisis situations, especially when serving on-call, I hope that no matter how long I am in the field, I never become desensitized to what others are experiencing. I think it helps to make you a good professional that you can empathize for what the person is going through to help them figure out how to get through it. I always want to feel and have empathy for those around me. I think this article is a good reminder of being cognizant of what you are doing and remembering why you are doing it. Theoretically, for whatever profession you are in, you started in it for a reason and it is vital to remember that reason and it keep it close to you.

12 Replies to “Empathy, Always”

  1. Coming from a public health background, I am a strong proponent of mental health access. However there is a large stigma associated with mental health and illness. Many students don’t seek help because they are fearful of being judged or they are unaware of services available to them. I agree that a more interwoven approach would be immensely helpful to overcome these challenges.

    On another note, I am glad you shared your thoughts on empathy because I agree that is relevant to all professions. No matter our line of work, we are all doing it for a reason, to help someone of something. It’s good to reflect on those reasons from time to time to ensure we maintain the empathy we had we when we started our profession.

  2. I second your thoughts about empathy. I do think it is often lost after time. That word desensitized is perfect and terrible all at once because it is exactly what happens. At some point, you feel like you have heard and seen it all, so nothing affects you any longer. I always think back to a few things, though:

    1. Everyone is fighting a battle you cannot see; how would you feel if you knew about it?
    2. Try to imagine yourself in the student or person’s situation; how would you feel?
    3. Kindness requires no talent.

  3. I really appreciate your comment on the importance of mental health care and empathy, and I see a connect between the two topics. While I think empathy is important, there are time that I hold back since being empathetic might just feel like too much in that moment (like on the last night of a week of serving on-call).

    At first, I was pondering the correct balance of empathy and indifference, but I think it might just be wise to take better care of our own mental health to make empathy possible.

    1. I agree with the original point that we should feel empathy- and correct ourselves when we find that we are not. However, I had a similar reaction as Jake to the idea that we need to be empathetic all the time… We cannot do it at all times without compromising our own mental health. Also, sometimes it’s not necessarily helpful if a person is too empathetic. e.g. I’d rather have an objective doctor telling me about treatment options than one that’s overly sympathizing.
      I think we need to aspire to knowing when we should allow ourselves to be empathetic and/or how to act empatheticly when we cannot feel it.

  4. Hello, thanks for sharing. I like what you mentioned about being desensitized to crisis situations. I think this follows some of the previous discussions regarding being on cruise control or not really focusing on a certain aspect. I think as future professionals, we are seeking to become extremely experienced in our tasks that we seek to be able to cruise through it easily because we have seen it so long and so often. I think that gets labeled as “success” too often but is in fact us being desensitized and really failing to absorb the new situations because we know we can handle the majority of the norm.

  5. Hi Zellie,
    Thank you for sharing your reflection on Sonia Henry’s piece. You’re right, higher education (in general) is extremely stressful and can have very serious impacts on student’s mental health. I think you’re right to assert the core need for empathy–really, across all disciplines, no matter the profession. It is so important.

    What you said about keeping what got you started close to you was really powerful. I hope that you continue to trot that one out for your future advisees and students. I heard something similar from an academic that I admire and it really made a difference for me, my outlook, and the direction of my research. I feel certain that little gem will no doubt positively ground students who feel like they have lost or don’t know “the way”).

  6. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mental health issues that grad students face… I can’t help but feel that graduate programs need to be restructured to focus more on creativity and innovation (which are at the heart of good research) rather on constantly producing new research papers. If you talk to any older professor, they will probably tell you that graduate studies were very different back in their day… much slower and more relaxed. I think it’s long since time we returned to that.

    I will admit that some of my personal motivations come from reflecting on research that shows that mental health issues like anxiety and depression are more common in graduate programs than undergraduate programs. However, the way that this is often phrased once left me to believe if it was simply a correlation between students who already have these conditions and students who choose to pursue a higher degree. Now that I’ve been in my program for several years, I can’t help but feel that graduate programs actually cause or promote these issues because of the high pressure and stress they place on students. Speaking from my own personal experience, I would not have said that I have issues with anxiety as an undergraduate. I definitely say that now as a graduate student, which is something that has definitely developed since I started my program. Perhaps I had some anxious tendencies beforehand and didn’t really know it or realize it, but I think the possibility that grad school experiences are directly worsening these issues cannot be ignored.

  7. The basis of this comment has been made above by and others replying, but I think I have something to add.
    The mental health of a worker (Doctor, therapist, crisis responder) and their sensitivity to trauma are likely negatively correlated. People who can keep themselves healthy working regularly in critical moments usually have to be able to desensitize when needed. If you’re fully emotionally engaged with every crisis, you won’t be able to maintain your own health. This is why so many people only last a few months as a crisis responder or therapist despite going through long training; they can either sacrifice feeling in the moment or their own long-term mental health. Being able to desensitize is the preferable option because it’s the only way to maintain balance and keep a qualified person available to help more individuals.

  8. Thanks so much for this, Zellie — I really resist the idea that compassion and reason can or should be detached from each other. I’ve been thinking a lot these last few days about a recent article / podcast by Atul Gewande about the continued depersonalization of medical treatment: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/12/why-doctors-hate-their-computers
    For educators as for physicians (and maybe just for all human beings), I feel like we have to cultivate the habits of mind that support empathy and resilience — for ourselves and each other.

  9. While I do think that the Cook counseling center is a good force for positive engagement with the students of Virginia Tech, there’s an underlying problem with the mental health awareness and perception in the USA. I know people who consistently compare themselves to others, and believe that their own struggles are less important and less deserving of help. This kind of mentality is a major reason for self-esteem and validation issues, and they would be more inclined to find help if they understood how they are not a burden.

    Another note: Your concern about losing your compassion for others is probably one of your greatest guards against it, since you critically look on your own behavior and thoughts and are prepared to make positive changes. It is also much easier to make concrete changes when you have a exact situation or example to point towards, rather than trying to prepare a full response to the ambiguous context of “lost empathy” ahead of when it happens.

  10. Hi Zellie- thank you for your personal connection to this week’s readings when discussing stress, anxiety, and empathy. I agree wholeheartedly that schools should be doing more to address student mental health.

    We ask professors to think more holistically about curriculum, so shouldn’t schools think more holistically about student mental health and well-being? You see special programs like the therapy dogs that come to campus during finals week and you wrote about the student counselling services, but neither of those meet the full student needs which can only be partially addressed through a patchwork of programs and healthcare offerings.

    Some institutions have decided to develop their own tool-kits for students/trainees in distress. This broader approach will better enable campuses to meet the needs of their student populations, which should improve student interactions, communication, focus, empathy, and everything else that mental health and well-being are related to.

  11. Hi Zellie,

    I love your thoughts and this post!

    Human Development is geared toward applied human services fields and we highlight empathy and compassion for others in our courses.

    I am glad to hear you thoughtfully consider this through the lens of your own experiences!

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