Understanding depression and developing empathy

Dr Annie Hickox advocates for the powerful combination of medication plus talking therapy. And Laurel Farrington highlights how empathy reduces when we are anxious and stressed

As a mental health professional, I was glad to read Jenny Stevens’ description of her experience of antidepressant medication and how it helped her during a mental health crisis that was exacerbated by Covid-19 (I’m not ashamed medication got me through the pandemic – but we need talking therapies too, 2 March). Her account of the initial effects of medication on her sleep and her ability to return to day-to-day activities that helped keep her “sane and stable” will resonate with many who have had severe depression.

She rightly points out that despite the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, and her own recognised need, talking therapy was repeatedly unavailable to her on the NHS. The difficulty in accessing psychological support contributes greatly to the surge in antidepressant prescribing and increases the stigma surrounding medication by those whose agenda is driven by an anti-medication ideology and misinformation.

We need to see robust funding for evidence-based psychological therapies on the NHS so that those struggling with mental illness can access the powerful combination of medication plus therapy.
Dr Annie Hickox
Consultant clinical psychologist

It is true that our brains work harder when we meet someone different from ourselves and this can be discomforting (Variation is the stuff of life. So why can it make us uncomfortable?, 4 March). Our nervous systems silently scan for threat 24/7: unknown humans can be supportive or dangerous, and in every new encounter effort is required to determine which applies.

Fear – and fear-based reasoning – is the root of much of our dislike of difference. Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests the practice of perspective-taking as a pathway to understanding others unlike us. This is a good method of developing true empathy, which consists of trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of another, with appropriate care and concern for them. There are many ways to develop empathy: plays, novels and all art leads us to a consideration of the other’s perspective and, as a mediator, I work within a process designed to resolve conflict in this way. Sadly, empathy reduces when we are anxious and stressed. Until people feel start to feel safe – economically, physically and politically – we will struggle to develop a more tolerant and compassionate society.
Laurel Farrington
Hitchin, Hertfordshire

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