There is no denying that mental illness is a relevant topic within high school communities. Many schools lack any mental health resources and breed communities where stigma and shame thrive. My school has tried to create a better environment for those struggling with mental illness but, their attempts have failed. Why is this? I believe that the main reason for these failed attempts is that there is a basic lack of empathy for those struggling with mental illness. If we do not empathize with these people how can we begin to help them? My goal with this project is to foster this crucial empathy within my community. Through my experience and research, I have found that the best way to foster and maintain empathy for those struggling with mental illness is by experiencing their experiences. This made me think about what can truly put us in the shoes of someone completely different than us. The compiled curriculum of books, discussion questions, and videos that follow have the ability to do this for us.

What I Learned

What is Empathy?

Psychologists actually divide empathy into two parts “the term empathy has been used to refer to two related human abilities: mental perspective taking (cognitive empathy, CE) and the vicarious sharing of emotion (emotional empathy, EE)” (Smith). Each prominent psychologist has had their own definition for empathy but in general, “The term empathy refers to sensitivity to, and understanding of, the mental states of others” (Smith). 

The video below is a great help in understanding empathy compared to sympathy!

Empathy, in general, has been on the decline. Whether this is because of our increasingly busy lives, mobile phones, or an entire generation of bad parents, it is definitely a problem! Just as empathy has gone down, rates of mental illness, suicide, and general unhappiness have gone up. There may not be scientific evidence that these two phenomena are inextricably linked, but we cannot ignore the correlation. 

(We’re Experiencing) To see the full Ted Talk this graphic is from, click here

For a long time empathy was thought to be an inherited trait. Something you are born with that remains the same our entire lives. Not only is this idea completely untrue, but it is one of the major reasons empathy is lacking (The Power). Empathy is actually just like any other skill. The more we practice it, the better we get. Sometimes we need outside help to strengthen our empathy skills and sometimes our own mistakes and experiences teach us too. While my focus has been on empathy in terms of mental illness, empathy is important for every aspect of our lives. Studies have even found that the more empathetic a person is, the happier they are (We’re Experiencing).  

We know that empathy is important, it makes our lives better, and it is a skill we can nurture, but what do we do with this information? 

I believe we should share this knowledge with as many people as we can. Studies have shown that by informing a person empathy is a skill rather than a stagnant trait, they test higher on empathy performance tests (We’re Experiencing). We also know that empathy is best learned through experiences (The Power). What follows is a curriculum of sorts which is based on the idea of experiential learning, what better way to experience something unknown than through stories!

Mental Illness Crash Course

Below is a list of just five books. Each tells a story, some more based in reality than others, of a person living with mental illness. When we read, we can look through the eyes of another person and that is the goal here. 

I hope for these books to be seen like any story we would read in a language arts class. I imagine we could annotate, analyze, ask questions, and have discussions, furthering our understanding of each story. In the United States, we imagine English books to be the classics like The Great Gatsby or Frankenstein, but these books have been read by teenagers for years and years. While they are great books, I believe it is time for a modernization of our learning. What topic could be more universally relevant for teenagers than mental illness? I see these books below as a jumping-off point for this change. 

Amazon.com: Turtles All the Way Down (0615145024912): Green, John: Books

Each of these books is challenging in its own right. While Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is lighthearted, it still brings up topics like suicide and depression. Challenger Deep and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden are both from the perspective of someone with schizophrenia. Turtles All the Way Down is a novel from the perspective of a teenager with OCD, an illness so few have true empathy for. There will be times in all these books when you may want to scream at a character, why are they doing this to themselves, why can’t they just be happy, don’t they know these thoughts aren’t real? These are perfectly natural questions to have but hopefully, as we learn more, we can start to understand they are not fair questions to ask.  

The goal of reading these books is not to make us sad, while they certainly will, but to understand an experience of something simple words cannot describe. Like in any learning environment, it is important to discuss challenging topics that are brought up so peers can learn from one another. Below are both general questions that can be used for any of these books which will prompt its readers to find empathy for these challenging characters as well as questions that can be discussed with no prior reading.

  1. When (character) did (action), how did that make you feel? Why do you think they took this action? 
  2. How did (character)’s experience with mental illness influence their actions?  
  3. If you were friends with (character) how would you respond to them in (situation from the book)?
  4. What was (character)’s experience with mental illness?
  5. Can you give an example of when (character)’s mental illness caused them to do something/think something they did not want to?
  6. Recall an example from the book when someone showed a lack of empathy for (character struggling with mental illness)?
  7. Recall an example from the book when someone did show empathy for (character struggling with mental illness)?
  8. Did this book change your view of mental illness? In what ways? Could you give an example?
  9. What are you taking away from (character)’s story? 
  10. What questions about mental illness did this book drum up for you?

 

  1. Think about a time when someone showed you empathy, describe how that empathy helped you.
  2. Think about a time when you felt no one was showing you empathy, how did this make you feel? 
  3. Think about a time when you had a cold, if someone said to you just be healthy, how would that make you feel? How is this an example of a lack of empathy?
  4.  Can you name an example of when empathy can be really challenging?
  5. Think about a time when, looking back, you feel you did not show empathy, why do you think you showed a lack of empathy? Were you missing important information, did you forget to try, did you not want to?
  6. Why do you think empathy is important?
  7. What makes having empathy for people with mental illness challenging?
  8. Is it important to acknowledge what we do and do not know when it comes to having empathy for others? Why or why not?
  9. Do you think there is a lack of empathy in your community? Why do you think this?
  10. How does lack of empathy impact a community? Can you think of any examples?

What Now?

On an individual level, we can take these resources and educate ourselves in ways our schools have failed us. As we read these books and open our minds, empathy will follow. Try practicing empathy with those in your community, ask questions, and share what you learn. Understanding mental illness is not easy for anyone (even those who have it). If you find yourself feeling confused judgmental, or even angry, be kind to yourself and understand that there is still so much learning to do!

On a societal level, we must aim to bring mental illness education into core curriculums. I believe mental illness is as relevant a theme as racism, morality, or faith, themes we already discuss in my English classes. From the start of this project, I viewed my work ending up as a proposal to my school’s English board. I plan to present them with the books, information, and videos above as a starting point of incorporating mental illness discussions in our classes. If you feel empathy for those struggling with mental illness is lacking in your community, I suggest you do the same. If your school is not supportive of the idea, try starting a book club or educating your friends! Empathy is something we need in this world and it makes perfect sense we would work on our empathy skills in school. If we educate ourselves and others maybe one day the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness could be lifted. 

Empathy Questionnaire 

Are you curious about how empathetic you are? This activity is more entertaining than informative but your results may surprise you!

This questionnaire aims to find the Empathy Quotient for a person and was developed “by Simon Baron-Cohen at ARC (the Autism Research Centre) at the University of Cambridge” (“Empathy”).

I am collecting the results of the questionnaire to find out if there is a correlation between students who study empathy in school and their empathy quotient. If you would like to see my findings email me at anna.glasser@universityprep.org

Works Cited

“Empathy Quotient.” Psychology Tools, psychology-tools.com/test/empathy-quotient. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.

The Power of Empathy. Performance by Audrey Moore, TEDx Talks, 2017.

Smith, Adam. “Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy in Human Behavior and Evolution.” The Psychological Record 56.1 (2006): 3-21. ProQuest. Web. 25 Mar. 2021.

We’re Experiencing an Empathy Shortage, but We Can Fix It Together. Performance by Jamil Zaki, TEDx Talks, 2017.

20 comments

  1. Hi Anna! My name is Kathleen Brandimarte, I am from the other abnormal psychology class. I really enjoyed learning more about your project. Empathy is such an important topic to learn about. Showing empathy and support to someone who is struggling with a mental illness is really the first step in helping them recover. I have expanded my knowledge on empathy by reading through your page. Great Job!

    1. Thanks Kathleen! I am glad this page was helpful.

  2. Hi Anna! Thank you for bringing attention to this! I feel like exercising empathy is such an important aspect of helping other people along the road to recovery, yet, is something so overlooked by society. It is also imperative to differentiate empathy from sympathy, which is, unfortunately, something a lot of people might struggle with. I will be looking into your book recommendations!

    1. I’m glad to hear Lulwah! There are so many more books I could recommend, just email me!

  3. Hey Anna! I just wanted to thank you for bringing attention to such an important issue. Especially today, being able to function with empathy is vital to understanding any community and being part of the movement of presenting mental health in a positive light. As a big reader myself, I loved that you pointed out what amazing tools books can be for understanding new ideas. (I was very happy to see Turtles All the Way Down included)You have a wonderful start to what looks like a plan that will leave a lasting impact on your community. I just wanted to leave you with a book recommendation of my own for you to check out. It’s called Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. It’s a beautiful story about a boy struggling from agoraphobia. Great Job!

    1. Thank you so much Emma!! I love that you have suggested Highly Illogical Behavior, I have not read this one before so I am definitely adding it to my list!

  4. Hi Anna!! This is a really great idea you brought up. The idea of empathy is one people talk about so much but the act of expressing it is diminishing. Right now, more than ever, empathy is so important in keeping our communities brighter, tighter and stronger. I appreciate how you highlighted the differences between empathy and sympathy. For mental illness, as you said, it is so difficult to really understand what someone is going through if you havent experienced it but pitying someone not the a good way of making them feel better. Your idea of a book club is such a simple way to easily insert more empathy for mental health into your community and I can see this spreading to so many more. I have been inspired by it and I scheduled a meeting with the English Department head at my school to try and incorporate some of your suggestions into our summer reading list or find another way to implement it into our curriculum! Do you have any more book suggestions or ideas for this project that you have brainstormed?

    1. Hi Rubi, it means so much to hear that my project has inspired you. I truly believe in its potential and I am so happy you do too! I sent you an email with even more book suggestions but you can always email me again if you want even more!

  5. Hi Anna!

    I LOVE that you focused on something you saw in your own school community and wanted to not only try and fix it but understand why it was happening and truly fix the root of the problem to try and move forward. I also think that it is super awesome that you have a conclusion from your work and truly found that cause you were wondering and looking for. Empathy is a concept I feel like many people are still trying to understand and use in their daily lives. Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but the cute video of the fox and bear show that they are very different concepts. I was surprised that the amount of empathy people show to others has significantly decreased recently. It was such a creative and smart choice to include books that share characters with mental illnesses and their stories.

    Amazing job!

    1. Hi Jing Jing! Thank you for appreciating my project, it really means a lot to me. I’m glad you liked the video of the fox and the bear, I think it is one of the cutest and simplest ways to learn about empathy. I feel like everyone should be made to watch it!

  6. Hey Anna!

    I really enjoyed going through your project. It was definitely clear that you put a lot of care and effort into this project. Your connection between the lack of empathy in our modern world and our increase in suicide, depression, and anxiety was so poignant. I bet there has been some research on this, but empathy would be very difficult to measure. I liked how you offered us these books and questions to use in our own communities. Would you ever consider doing a book club over twist so that we could discuss these books in further detail. I just hit order on, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden!

    1. Hi Madelyn. Empathy is really difficult to measure! I think it is best observed qualitatively rather than quantitatively, which is what we prefer to see. Your idea of doing a book club over twist is genuis! I am going to look into that for sure. I am so happy you ordered I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, it is one of my favorites that I recommended and I think it is a perfect place to start!

  7. Hi Anna! My name is Taraneh, and I am from the other abnormal psychology class; I really liked your project and how you tried to focus on something that is a really relevant topic within high school communities. It is great that you tried to foster this crucial concept within your community! I loved all the pictures, videos, and books you used to help explain empathy and how we can improve it. I think this topic is one of the crucial concepts that we really need to talk more about because we can easily observe the lack of empathy in many communities. Overall I really enjoyed your project! Thank you!

    1. Thanks Taraneh. I am glad you feel this is a relevant topic within high school communities in general, I totally agree!

  8. I LOVE that Brene Brown video and hope all the educators stopping by this page can find one way to champion mental health in the core curriculum. I remember the challenge of reading Ordinary People when I was in high school and discussing the issues of depression and feelings of loneliness in my English class; this was the only time we really focused on the topic.

    1. Thanks Mr. Germain. I am actually surprised to hear your school discussed Ordinary People in English Class, I hope that kind of education only keeps on growing!

  9. Hi Anna! I think that this is such an important topic and you presented it in such an amazing way. The interactive components of your project made it just that much for enjoying and engaging! I feel that there are so many people who could benefit from your project!! Thank you for this:)

  10. Hi Anna! My name is Tillie, I am from another abnormal psychology class. First off, the Brene Brown video is so good, I personally loves it the first time I watched it and it is super helpful. I loved this pages because it is really important to understand how to be there and empathize for people that are going through things that one may not understand. It can be very frustrating sometimes when you are having an encounter with someone with a mental health disorder or mental health challenges and you feel like you can’t understand them because you don’t have experience with what they are going through. This is definitely a super important topic.

  11. Hi Anna! I really like this project and how you went about it. As someone with mental health issues, I think that the focus on empathy and using books and questions is an amazing way to go about it. I have never thought of that strategy before and I might try to find books that incorporate some of the issues I am working with and see if that helps them understand a little bit better. I really hope you share this with your school!

  12. Greeting to you Ms. Anna, I hope your day is going quite dandy. I saw your presentation and I must say it is quite enlightening. From under my breast, whereth lies my heart, I thank you ever so much for magnifying light on this topic. Again hats off to you madam, you really knocked my socks off on this one. It was quite the knockout of a presentation.

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