A Stitch In Time: Empathy As Prevention
The more I read about empathy, the more I understand it to be not just a cure for so many social ills, but also a very strong form of prevention.
In fact, while perusing the International Society of Addiction Medicine's Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (Volume 1) recently, as I am wont to do (as I am wont to do so long as someone hands it to me open to the right page and says 'read this!'), I came across a chapter on prevention strategies which was originally published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Portugal.
Under a section titled Universal Drug Prevention: Intervening with Populations, the authors call empathy a 'behavioral vaccine'. They cite research which shows that when social competencies (i.e. emotional literacy) are taught -- not merely offered, modeled or absorbed, but actively engaged with and practiced, there is a measurable avoidance or, in some cases, delay of substance use.
The social influence approach, they say, "has consistently been more effective than programs based on any other approach."
Social influence training targets a number of different skills including listening, crafting compliments, empathy, and communication. Personal skills such as goal setting, coping (resilience), and identifying feelings are also addressed. A third category, which involves assessing normative beliefs (what students believes other students' habits of consumption to be), has less evidence to back it up, but to me it sounds like a variation on the Pygmalian effect which asserts that people will live up to the expectations set out for them-- an effect which I've observed to hold true in a great many interpersonal relationships.
Although this article appeared in the context of addiction treatment, the implications might be taken a step further. If the teaching of emotional literacy can prevent a child from developing and addiction later in life, might it prevent a child from developing depression as well? What about a child who is prone to tendencies that are not compatible with social integration. How would social influence training and personal skills serve them as they encounter difficult choices or situations?
I think it's safe to say that a boost of self confidence coupled with a dose of empathy can only be beneficial, and that, like the models cited here from the ISAM Textbook, emotional literacy is something that should be taught intensively at all levels of education.
As an aside, I feel that it's significant that this article was published in Portugal. You may or may not know that Lisbon, Portugal's capital city, was nearly devastated by drug activity and related crime and disease at the end of the '90s. There was one degree of separation or less between almost every person in the population and a heroin addict, and hepatitis and AIDS were rampant. In 2001, Portugal took a drastic and precedent-setting step of decriminalizing drugs. No drug, from pot to crack cocaine would land you in jail. The basis for this change of procedure was an even more dramatic change in attitude, and one which we should all be grateful for, even if you consider this to be de rigueur today. Portugal decided to stop treating addiction as a crime, and instead began to treat it for what it really is; a mental health issue. Instead of incarceration, drug addicts were invited to rehabilitation and, wherever possible, reintegration into society. The result of this experiment has been reduction in crime and addiction, but also in the social and monetary costs associated with an ill population.
Emotional intelligence can prevent drug addiction. Empathy can help populations stay healthy. These two stories speak volumes about the necessity of social skills and empathy training.