What Mental Illness Has Taught Me About Empathy

June 21, 2012 Natalie Jeanne Champagne

First, let's define empathy on a basic level. According to Wikipedia:

"Empathy is an ability with many different definitions . . . ranging from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person's emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other."

In short: Empathy is the ability to understand other people, recognize their pain and have an instinctual desire to help them.

An Example of Empathy

When I think of empathy one situation comes to mind: I was nineteen years old and sitting on the bus that took me to college five days a week. I had memorized every single tree and the details of the houses the bus passed.

There was never anything unusual about that bus ride. Of course, a community bus has loads of different people, all types, going to different places with different lives and ambitions. It was never strange to see a person who needed assistance: a man or woman, for example, in a wheelchair. The driver always helped them on the bus and helped them off. Smiles were exchanged. Life moved on.

I caught a different bus one day, a longer route, with new things to look at but nothing was really different. I was still going to the same place surrounded by unique people.

The bus slowed to a halt and a man in a wheelchair slowly came down the aisle. I waited for the driver to attach the seat belt, as they always do, as they have been trained to do. But he just kept driving and this man was without a belt. I thought to myself: "I should get up and attach the belt...but would he be offended?" I am certain others felt the same. I looked back out the window. It was fall, amber leaves graced the ground.

The man pulled the string that told the driver to stop. The bus slowly came to a halt and I waited for the driver to help the man off. He did not. I watched his eyes look back, bored, waiting to move on. And the man? Well he tried and tried to get off, his chair backing into other seats. He never asked for help and nobody offered.

I watched with the rest of them until fury took over my mind and I stood up. I grabbed the handle's of the chair and I helped him off. The driver waited for me to get back on but I waved him off.

This was my first, and not my last, example of empathy. Empathy, I realized, is a feeling derived from our own experiences. Our own pain and our success! The things that make us smile and the things that make us cry. Empathy is an instinctual trait but it is also acquired through experience.

The Connection Between Mental Illness and Empathy

The connection between mental illness and empathy is not as complicated as the word itself. Why are people who live with a mental illness naturally more empathetic?

>Pain is shared experienced. There is not a single person on earth (excluding, perhaps, very young children) who have not felt pain. Just as people all need to drink water to survive so to do they need to feel pain at some point in order to be human. To be empathetic. Mental illness is painful and pain is transferable--aka we are empathetic to other people's pain.

>Living with a mental illness can help us understand people on a deeper level. We have probably spent time learning about our illness--learning about ourselves. The journey we take to recover from mental illness is unique to us, but also lends itself to an understanding of other people.

>We are probably more forgiving. When we were sick we probably burnt some bridges, hurt people we love, and asked for forgiveness. Having received it, we understand mistakes and we can forgive them based on learned empathy.

It's sort a complicated topic and distinctly hard to condense, but empathy is an important part of life. I won't ever forget that man on the bus, how he shook my hand after and we exchanged names, both us people, both of us having learned a little more about empathy.

APA Reference
Jeanne, N. (2012, June 21). What Mental Illness Has Taught Me About Empathy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 21 from

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

Maedin kebede from coppin state university - nursing student
November, 7 2014 at 3:24 am

from my little knowldege and few days of observations to the psych. unit, psych. nurses and coworkers need to have a dozen of empathy towards mentaly ill pt. Pt. need that support, love , comppassion whic are a postive relection of natuer, living well together and a journey of touching peoples life.

Dr Musli Ferati
June, 30 2012 at 7:53 pm

Yes, right You are! Empathy as genuine and affectionate emotional experience give rise our humane being and ennoble our character. Without this pro-social feeling feature, the world would been an arena of wild beast blood-suckers. But in real life the sense of empathy is often overloaded with anti-social feeling and activity that are primary responsible factors to scornful interpersonal relations.When it is about to mentally ill person and its social well-being, the matter grow up at the more compassionate level, because every mentally ill person, besides its mental disorder has got the burden of stigma as crucial anti-humane attitude. Therefore, it is preferable to install a virtual understanding toward this feeble and delicate category of population, that have got double psychic suffering: one from itself psychopatology and the other from ironic and disdain conduct of people toward its tender psycho-social state. Surprisingly, these suggestion are of great value for mentally health subjects that should to face with many contradictory psycho-social situation along their exciting and dynamic daily life.

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