Empathy among Canadians had dropped during pandemic, CHMA finds

People don’t care about each other as much as they used to, that’s according to a Canada-wide survey. The findings about empathy burnout have some B.C. advocates particularly concerned for the clinically vulnerable. Ashley Burr reports.

By Ashley Burr, Denise Wong, and Victoria Mann

Empathy across Canada is nearly half what it used to be, according to a survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and UBC researchers who spoke with about 3,000 people and found only 13 per cent feel empathetic, down from 23 per cent two years ago.

“We went from the beginning of the pandemic that ‘We are all in this together’ to ‘What can I do to protect myself and family?’ Those are challenging things to do, two years into a pandemic,” explained Sarah Kennell with the CMHA.

Health educator Dr. Dylan Cutler, who works with people who have chronic health conditions and those with long-term disabilities, says her patients are feeling that lack of empathy, particularly when the people around them don’t adhere to public health guidelines.

Cutler says the drop in empathy suggested in the survey is “very scary on multiple levels.”

“People that are most impacted by COVID are going to be impacted by this empathy and lack of understanding for others,” she said.

“It can start to feel like our lives don’t matter — especially for chronically ill — like our lives don’t matter as much as other’s freedoms. So, its very psychologically isolating.”

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Cutler points to the pandemic as something everyone has been going through over the past two years, adding “we suddenly all have something in common, which we didn’t always have.”

“When we do live in such a hyper-individualized society that we live in, it tends to decrease empathy, especially when personal responsibility becomes more and more important in protecting other people … empathy is going to decrease when we’re focused on the individual.”

But Dr. Natasha Ghosh, a registered clinical counsellor, is optimistic that relationships can be rebuilt despite our differences and our level of empathy as a society can bounce back.

“Human connection is what drives us and if we are losing that, how can we move forward what is that going to look like in the future?” she said.

“If we don’t have capacity for ourselves, how can we have capacity for others? One of the keys of bringing back empathy into play is creating capacity for ourselves. Self care is going to be really important and to also be open to connections with others, and know that connection can create strength rather than a depletion on your energy.”

For her part, Cutler points out empathy is the connection we have with others in society, adding she’s also hopeful things can turn around.

“When we have such differing levels of privileges, we need empathy. … I hope that we can find a way to somehow care for others — care for ourselves, but also put ourselves in others’ shoes.”

The CHMA/UBC survey also found over a third of respondents are worried about lost social connections and/or being separated from family. The results were shared as part of Mental Health Week 2022.

Data released by the same organizations in March suggested 37 per cent of Canadians have felt their mental health decline compared to the start of the pandemic.

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