In a recent blog I wrote about empathy and how we might try to teach medical students to be empathic physicians. Psychiatrists, other physicians and therapists try to put ourselves into our patient’s shoes (or skin) in order to understand how they are feeling in regard to the things which are troubling them. When we do psychotherapy we often approach this with an added dimension. We know that the patient will usually experience the therapist in a similar manner to how they experienced important people in their early life, most probably their parents and/or siblings. Freud has dubbed this situation as transference and for certain types of psychotherapy understanding the transference and using it in the therapy can be very helpful. In fact, for psychoanalytic and much of psychodynamic therapy, it becomes the essence of the treatment.
I was recently made aware of another aspect of empathy which I never thought about before and which I would now label “social empathy” . My consciousness to this form of empathy was raised when I read about a blog called Postsecrets which weekly displays anonymously mailed-in secrets on artistic postcards from across the country. It has been around for several years and has long been known for revealing suicidal secrets. It has set up a phone hotline in response since the blog began in 2004. Recently a postcard read, ” I have lived in San Francisco since I was young…I am illegal…I am not wanted here. I don’t belong anywhere. This summer I plan to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.” According to a blogger Kristi Oloffson .within 24 hours nealry 20,000 people had signed up for a Facebook group titled “Please Don’t Jump, which was later linked beneath the secret on the Postsecrets blog , linking in thousands of supportive comments. On the group’s page, sympathetic users posted comments ranging from simply “I want you here” to “If I knew when you’d be at the bridge, I’d drive all the way from Ohio to meet you there, and hold you until you changed your mind.” A video about this phenomena has become the most viewed video on the Time Magazine web site. ( For information about the issue of suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge please see two previous blogs I have written on this subject , Suicide Jumpers From the Golden Gate Bridge and More on Jumpers, The Movie ).
I checked it out and sure enough and as of this writing there are more than 60,000 people who have tuned in to this secret and obviously felt an empathic response which they posted on the Facebook site. It may have been that this group comes from a populations which were drawn to the Please Don’t Jump Facebook page because they themselves are in touch their own secrets and feel for someone who has this one. Others without being aware of their own secret may also just want to reach out to someone else whose pain they can feel. It is also clear that people responding to the would be San Francsico jumper are not mainly other immigrants who are in a similar plight. They seem to come from all age groups, geographic areas and different backgrounds as best as I could tell scrolling through a sample of the now more than 60,000 responses. I believe that it is the identification with loneliness and isolation which is the universal piece that many people have felt at some time in their life which is connecting people with the San Francisco postcard sender.
Implications For Psychotherapy
I don’t believe that social medial will replace the role of psychotherapy. However, it does appear that there is a natural role that it is playing in the support of people who are feeling psychological pain. This new media is clearly interdigitating with other forms of psychological support and there is no reason whey they can’t overlap. We should be asking patients if they have had previous psychotherapy, whether they have been treated by any self help groups as well as including an an inquiry whether they have been interacting with the social media in regard to their current or other problems.