By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
Many states have laws mandating the teaching of humane education in public schools because of the positive effects that these programs have on our communities. They decrease bullying and other forms of verbal and physical abuse, and help children develop critical thinking skills.
Teaching kids to be compassionate and socially aware citizens is also valuable because it offers individual benefits for students.
In my work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve treated young people with many different kinds of mental health issues. Some of them have depression or anxiety, while others have behavioral problems like ADHD or aggression.
Usually, these kids are emotionally disconnected from others. Some of them have been through traumatic situations, such as abuse or neglect, while others are simply products of our self-centered culture, which often encourages people to think about themselves and disregard the needs of those around them. Feelings of social isolation are a hallmark of mood disorders such as depression, and a lack of empathy is a key factor in the development of conduct disorders.
On the other hand, research studies have demonstrated that helping others stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains. Cognitive exercises designed to increase compassion have been shown to improve the responses of our immune systems to stress. Being aware of the feelings and perspectives of others is an important component of emotional intelligence, now thought by psychologists to be more predictive of academic and occupational success than traditional I.Q. tests.
Programs like HEART encourage students to consider themselves as part of the larger world around them, a community which includes people of all ethnicities and animals of all species. Becoming mindful of the ways that their everyday actions affect other living beings, and working to change their own patterns of behavior to live more humanely, fosters the development of empathy and compassion in their growing brains.
Acquiring such a mindset is an antidote to self-centeredness. Children who have participated in humane education classes have stronger emotional connections to others, making it less likely that they will suffer from symptoms of mood or conduct disorders. As adults, they are likely to be happy, fulfilled, and well-adjusted members of their communities.
As a mental health professional who is concerned about the emotional well-being of children in our society, I’m very excited to have recently joined HEART’s team of volunteers.
Dr. Ramakrishna is a pediatric psychiatrist, HEART volunteer, and author of the forthcoming book Why Children Need Animals.