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Biological Explanations for Mental Health Symptoms Make Clinicians Less Empathetic

Dec 3, 2014

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Biological explanations may tend to stigmatize a patient.

A new Yale University Study reveals a negative bias toward mental health patients whose symptoms are explained biologically.

You might expect that therapists and psychiatrists would be more empathetic toward a person suffering with mental health problems when his or her condition is attributed to biological factors, such as a genetic disorder, or biochemical changes in the brain.

But a new Yale University study shows quite the opposite. Biological reasons actually make a clinician less empathetic to a patient.

In a series of three studies, clinicians were given either biological reasons or a set of life experiences to account for a patient's mental disorder. Consistently, clinicians felt more compassion for a patient whose life experiences accounted for the mental illness.

"The report at first seems counterintuitive, since patients who have mental health problems due to biological reasons are less blameworthy," said Matt Lebowitz, a Yale graduate student in psychology, and lead author of the report. His guess is that biological explanations tend to stigmatize the patient.

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"If people see a certain group of individuals such as those with mental disorders as biologically different from everyone else, that can lead to the idea that a permanent, fundamental, biologically- based dividing line between that group and the rest of society exists," Lebowitz said.

The study also revealed that clinicians saw psychotherapy as a less effective option when provided solely a biological explanation, a finding Matt Lebowitz finds unsettling. "That could lead clinicians and others to potentially have less faith in the the effectiveness of psychotherapy, and in many cases, psychotherapy is one of the most effective treatments," he said.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.