Studies have shown that depression, empathy, and sometimes antidepressants may be linked. Learning more about the possible connection can help you get your needed support.

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Having empathy allows you to connect with others.

So what happens when someone has a lower level of empathy? Could mental health have an impact on a person’s empathy levels?

Some mental health conditions are closely linked to low or no empathy. In particular, depression and certain antidepressant treatments may lower your empathy levels.

If you think that you or someone you know has lower empathy levels, it can help to learn more about it.

The definition of empathy can be a little tough to narrow down.

According to Greater Good Magazine, empathy has to do with determining how someone else is feeling. It involves being able to step into another person’s shoes to make an educated guess as to their possible thoughts.

Often, studies recognize two kinds of empathy:

  • affective empathy: how we might feel when we sense someone else’s emotions
  • cognitive empathy: how well we can grasp another person’s emotions

Empathy may be related to mental health.

For instance, an older 2007 study states that numerous mental health conditions are linked to lower levels of empathy. Some people living with certain mental health conditions may not experience empathy altogether.

A 2018 study suggests that reduced empathy seen in those living with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) can increase the chance of instrumental aggression, also known as goal-oriented aggression.

This means a person is more likely to act with aggression for personal gain due to reduced responsiveness to the distress cues of others.

According to a 2018 review, impairments in cognitive empathy were found in those living with Alzheimer’s disease, which may affect cognitive decline. The review further indicates severe empathy deficits in those living with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Everyone’s experience with depression will vary. Yet, it often appears that depression affects the level of empathy someone might have.

Depression may affect empathy

If you have depression, you may think that other people are more distressed.

A 2017 study asked participants to rate how upset they thought someone in a video felt. Participants who felt sad during the study also thought the person in the video was upset. Meanwhile, participants who didn’t feel sad rated the person in the video as less distressed.

A 2014 study similarly concluded that depression affects empathy. But the results differ from the conclusions drawn in the 2017 study mentioned above.

In particular, it was noted that study participants with depression scored lower on cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand how someone else might be feeling.

Possible differences between age groups and sex

How depression affects empathy may differ depending on your age and sex.

For instance, a 2011 study that included couples found that women experiencing symptoms of depression were less likely to accurately read their significant other’s emotions or understand what they were thinking.

Further, a 2021 study suggests that the relationship between empathy and depression might change with age.

In adolescents, it was found that empathy and depression levels would move up or down together, so that a younger person may show both high empathy and higher levels of depression. The opposite was found in older adults.

Antidepressant treatments may be at fault

Some research suggests that antidepressant treatments, and not depression itself, may be behind any lowered empathy levels.

For instance, in a 2019 study, participants with depression didn’t experience reduced empathy levels before starting treatment. Later, three months into treatment, their affective empathy levels had dropped. Still, their cognitive empathy levels didn’t change.

If you or a loved one are experiencing depression, it’s important to seek help from a trusted professional.

Further, if you’re experiencing lower empathy, you may want to try to improve your empathy levels.

This can include finding a support group to help you talk through any challenges you’re facing.

How to Find a Therapist

Looking for a therapist but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

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If you prefer listening to a podcast, there are many options that can help build your empathy skills.

You can also try a new activity, such as volunteering, or explore somewhere new. This can help build your humility and empathy levels.

Another option is to seek out close friends to help you gauge where your empathy levels are. They can work as gentle mirrors to tell you how you’re doing.

Remember that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing low empathy or a mental health challenge. There are many support options that will help you along your journey.