The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope With Mental Illness

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What are the limits of sympathy in dealing with another person's troubles? Where do we draw the line between caring for a loved one, and being swallowed up emotionally by the obligation to do so? Quite simply, what do we owe each other? In this vivid and thoughtful study, David Karp chronicles the experiences of the family members of the mentally ill, and how they draw "boundaries of sympathy" to avoid being engulfed by the day-to-day suffering of a loved one.
Working from sixty extensive interviews, the author reveals striking similarities in the experiences of caregivers: the feelings of shame, fear, guilt and powerlessness in the face of a socially stigmatized illness; the frustration of navigating the complex network of bureaucracies that govern the mental health system; and most of all, the difficulty negotiating an "appropriate" level of involvement with the mentally ill loved one while maintaining enough distance for personal health. Throughout the narratives, Karp sensitively explores the overarching question of how people strike an equilibrium between reason and emotion, between head and heart, when caring for a catastrophically ill person. The Burden of Sympathy concludes with a critical look at what it means to be a moral and caring person at the turn of the century in America, when powerful cultural messages spell out two contradictory imperatives: pursue personal fulfillment at any cost and care for the family at any cost.
An insightful, deeply caring look at mental illness and at the larger picture of contemporary values, The Burden of Sympathy is required reading for caregivers of all kinds, and for anyone seeking broader understanding of human responsibility in the postmodern world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this excellent, riveting work, David Karp explores the quandary of familial caregivers and how ethical obligations to those with emotional disturbances shed light on the ties that bind the whole of humanity together. I found in this remarkable book a clear moral vision ensconced in a series of page turning portraits depicting the mentally ill and of those who love them." —Lauren Slater, author of Prozac Diary and Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir

"David Karp has captured the essence of caring and caregiving in his fine book. For family members of individuals with schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, and severe depression, he accurately describes 'the social tango between emotionally ill people and those who try to help them.' This will be a useful book for families of mentally ill individuals...I strongly recommend it." —E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., Executive Director, Stanley Foundation Research Programs, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Research Institute, and author of Surviving Schizophrenia

"David Karp is a great ethnographer of disrupted lives, offering profound truths in clear prose, combining empathy with analysis. Burden of Sympathy gives eloquent voice to care givers; I know no other book that tells their story with such respect. This brilliant study offers personal validation, a model study of suffering and moral decision making, and a profound challenge to policy makers." — Arthur W. Frank, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Calgary and author of At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness and The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195123159
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/12/2000
  • Pages: 348
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Karp is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. His book Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness (OUP, 1996) won the Charles Horton Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. He lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    a very empathetic, informative & compassionate look at the burdens of caregivers of the mentally ill

    Caregivers of the mentally ill are rarely understood or thought about,unless it is by others in the same boat. This book helps reveal the burdens of being a caregiver of someone with mental illness, the struggles they go through, and the sacrifices they make for those they love. Good reading for the caregiver, or to enlighten others who know people who are in this situation.

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