Poor empathy may feature in common psychiatric conditions

By Lauretta Ihonor, medwireNews reporter

Individuals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression may be less empathic than individuals without these conditions, according to German study results.

However, the severity of this empathic impairment varies among the different psychiatric conditions, say Birgit Derntl (University of Vienna, Austria) and co-authors in Schizophrenia Research.

Among a group of 96 individuals with a mean age of 41 years, schizophrenia patients (n=24) exhibited less empathic capability than bipolar disorder patients (n=24), while bipolar disorder patients were found to be less empathic than depressed individuals (n=24).

Empathy levels observed among the depressed patients were similar to those seen among 24 mentally healthy individuals, although depressed patients exhibited worse affective responsiveness than controls.

A negative correlation was observed between depression severity and duration and level of affective responsiveness.

"Our data clearly support the need for specific training programs to improve high-level emotional competencies particularly in schizophrenic patients going beyond emotion recognition training," say Derntl and colleagues.

When patients were asked to self-report their empathic ability, no significant correlation was seen between observed empathic ability and self-reported empathy.

Of note, bipolar disorder patients reported lower levels of empathy than all other patient groups.

In light of this, the authors recommend that "in bipolar patients, therapists should encourage patients to correct their negative self-evaluation as regards to empathic competencies especially by relying on accurate perspective taking in complex social situations as a particular resource."

In the study, three tasks were devised to assess three aspects of empathy: emotion recognition, affective responsiveness, and perspective taking.

During the assessment of emotion recognition, patients were presented with pictures of faces showing specific emotions and asked to identify the emotion.

Affective responsiveness was analyzed by asking patients to describe how they would feel in various emotion-provoking real-life situations, and perspective taking was assessed by asking patients to match pictures of specific emotional expressions to specific emotional scenarios.

The authors conclude: "Our results suggest disorder-specific impairments in emotional competencies that enable better characterization of the patient groups investigated and indicate different psychotherapeutic interventions."

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