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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
“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.