The limits of compassion: Challenging compassion fade

From natural disasters to a toxic drug supply, homelessness and violence in Gaza and the Ukraine, our news feeds provide an overwhelming stream of evidence that major social problems and large-scale tragedies are playing out, both in Canada and in countries around the globe.  

We may read, for instance, that more than 5 million people in Canada met the diagnostic criteria for a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder in 2022, and 1 in 3 reported unmet or only partially met needs for mental health care services. 

After discovering this statistic, and the difficulties in access to mental health care in Canada that it suggests, we may well continue on with our day, without considering what might be done to improve the situation. Perhaps we even have little or no emotional reaction, despite knowing, intellectually, that we are looking at evidence of human suffering.  

We probably think of ourselves as compassionate. In fact, CMHA polling indicates that more than 9 in 10 Canadians do. We may also be aware of the significant potential benefits, including for our own mental health, of a compassionate response to hardships that others are experiencing. So why is it that sometimes, when we encounter real-world tragedy, we fail to care, let alone respond in any meaningful way?  

The concept of “compassion fade” is one theory that can help us understand when and why our felt experience of compassion can hit a wall1 – as well as what we might do to overcome this. Compassion fade refers to the idea that our capacity to feel compassion diminishes, as our exposure to suffering increases. Research shows that we are more likely to be moved by personal stories and narratives and less affected when we hear about the trials or sufferings of a group of people or a nation.2 When confronted with vast numbers of people in need, our ability to emotionally connect and respond effectively becomes strained. This leads us to feeling helpless and disengaged. 

The theory of compassion fade is far from the only explanation for why we may be unmoved to respond to the plights of others. Racism, socioeconomic-based discrimination, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, can influence the stories about suffering that we tell, that we’re exposed to, and that we take in. We make choices, unconscious or otherwise, about what warrants our compassion, and those choices are shaped by our social identities, privileges or lack thereof, and the society that we live in. 

But if we want to become more compassionate, then compassion fade is one concept we may benefit from recognizing. If we’re aware of our potential to be less reactive to suffering when it’s wide-reaching, then we can explore strategies to support responding, nonetheless, with kindness and care. 

Learning compassion and countering compassion fade 

Compassion is a learned practice. One of the things we are taught as children is how to be kind and compassionate to others. Over time, we become more compassionate when we recognize that suffering is part of the human experience, but also that our experiences of suffering may sometimes be different based on our histories, identities, and experiences. Listening to and recognizing the experiences of others is part of the healing when someone is suffering.    

When we face issues that strike us as tragic or unjust, we can consider how we might connect more deeply with a single person who has lived experience related to the topic. Perhaps that’s by watching a documentary, listening to a podcast, reading a blog post, or speaking to an organization or an individual in our community. If this grows our spark of compassion – an authentic desire to help lessen the suffering of others – we can also ask for a specific suggestion about what we might do to make a difference. 

From inaction to action: extending compassion to everyone in Canada 

Recent polling demonstrates that while the vast majority of Canadians consider themselves compassionate, this doesn’t always translate into action. Fewer than 40 per cent of Canadians actually took action to alleviate hardship over the last year. 

Meanwhile, we currently face worrying levels of stress, anxiety, and loneliness in Canada, heightened by social inequality, an affordability crisis, political divisiveness, human rights violations, and ongoing climate concerns.  Now, more than ever, we need policies and programs that support those experiencing poverty, housing, or food insecurity, discrimination, racism, and all other forms of marginalization. 

The overwhelming majority of people in Canada (nearly 4 in 5) believe that Canada could be a more compassionate country by doing more to help those in need through social support programs and better laws/policies. But outside the offices of politicians and other decision-makers, there are also actions that every Canadian can take at the individual level to better the lives of people who are suffering. 

At CMHA, despite the work we’ve done to destigmatize mental illness, addictions, and substance use, we know that the 1 in 5 Canadians living with mental illnesses and substance disorders continues to experience high levels of stigma and discrimination, poverty, and homelessness.  

One way to extend compassion to everyone in Canada today is by joining the “Act for Mental Health” campaign – a coalition of individuals and organizations collectively advocating for universal mental health care. 

While it is common to feel hopeless, overwhelmed, or helpless, through intentional and collective efforts, we have the capacity to overcome these limitations. By joining our movement for Universal Mental Health Care, you can do just that. 

Explore our toolkit to learn more about compassion.