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Another Voice: Help close the mental health 'empathy gap'

By Ann Griepp, M.D.

Sixty percent of upstate New York adults feel people are caring and sympathetic to those who suffer from mental illness, according to research findings issued by Univera Healthcare. A closer look at the data reveals a less rosy view from people who have mental health issues.

Using self-reported survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Univera found that 46 percent of upstate New York adults who have a depressive disorder feel that people are generally caring and sympathetic to individuals with mental illness.

Some 64 percent of upstate New York adults who have never been diagnosed with a depressive disorder believe that people are generally caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.

National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 10-16) is an appropriate time to shine a light on the need to bridge this empathy gap.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, and may affect an individual’s ability to function and relate to others.

One in five U.S. adults experiences a mental health condition over the course of a year, making mental illness more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

The myths and the stigma that surround mental illness can result in feelings of shame and isolation that can cause affected persons to deny symptoms, delay treatment and refrain from taking part in daily life.

According to NAMI, less than half of U.S. adults who had a mental health condition received treatment last year. Univera’s review of the CDC data found that in upstate New York, 15 percent of adults are currently taking medication or are receiving treatment for mental illness.

People who suffer from a mental condition are less likely to seek and adhere to treatment for their illness, and are also less likely to adhere to treatment for such other chronic health conditions as diabetes, heart disease, respiratory conditions, arthritis and asthma. This puts them at risk for health complications and a lower quality of life.

In addition to encouraging people who have a mental illness to get treatment, we can help bridge the empathy gap by reframing how we think about mental illness. We can do that by seeing the person and not the illness.

We shouldn’t need a calendar event such as National Suicide Prevention Week to keep awareness of mental illness top-of-mind. But, if it helps to bridge the very real empathy gap when it comes to mental health issues, so be it.

Download a free infographic poster on Empathy and Mental Illness: Bridging the Gap, at

Ann Griepp, M.D., is Univera Healthcare’s medical director for behavioral health management.

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