Momentous Personal Victories: Honoring the Struggle for Mental Health

Last week I had the opportunity to present Out of the Basement to a group of high school students enrolled in a class called Human Concerns in Literature. Michael Tanner, the protagonist of Out of the Basement, struggles to maintain his mental health as the lingering trauma of childhood abuse threatens to drown him in a sea of unresolved pain and shame. The importance of mental health took center stage in our discussion, shaped by the class lenses of identity, friendship, and success.

Personal Victories

A particularly important point in our discussion took place during a conversation about success. We focused on a moment in the book when Michael pulled open his metaphoric door, the handle ominously pictured on the book’s cover. The door contains Michael’s spiritual, mental, and psychological torment, which poured forth as a flood, creating fierce currents that threatened to consume him. Michael, who was facing this horror in a meditative states, finds his feet and plants them firmly on the ground. Finding a sense of balance he asks, “Have I at least earned the right to stand in these waters?” The answer is yes. Moreover, it is an important moment in anyone’s struggle for mental health.

Michael was alone during this scene. After time with supportive friends, both old and new, he desired a private confrontation with his demons. It became a private victory, and it carried personal power and meaning.

I stressed to the class that such an important step does not mean Michael achieved a final victory. He planted a flag acknowledging and owning hard won progress. That is part of the journey of mental health, accepting meaningful triumphs even if others may not understand, or if you simply can’t communicate the magnitude of the moment. Not everything needs a “like” or to garner a large group’s approval. With mental health the greatest victories are often achieved alone or with small groups. Sometimes the right individual is all we need at those times.

As I scanned the room I saw students nodding their heads. I found this sad and gratifying. It was clear some students felt my words quite deeply, deeper than I wished them capable. Their reaction prompted me to state that anyone who has felt the power of personal victories should feel proud of themselves, and they should keep striving. The interaction was a reminder that many people, young and old, are engaged in unseen struggles for mental health and against psychological disorders and disturbances. Hopefully anyone undertaking this difficult journey is kind and forgiving to themselves (an area of weakness for Michael Tanner in Out of the Basement). It can be counterproductive to allow the big picture – the desire for the final victory – to diminish the power of small steps successfully taken on the long road to increased psychological prosperity.

Help Beyond Friendship

Another aspect of the class is the theme of friendship, a concept that was easily evaluated within the pages of Out of the Basement for Michael proclaims he is “blessed in his friendships.” I hope all people can make such a proclamation friends often become beacons of hope when we stand on the edge of darkness. We discussed the friendships that bolstered Michael’s spirits, granting him strength in a desperate hour.

In the aftermath of the session, however, I was reminded again of the reality that there are many obstacles to mental health. I am also a teacher. A topic I am currently covering is the impact of PTSD on veterans and how it contributes to tragic outcomes. Some veterans in the articles we read discussed the camaraderie they enjoyed with fellow vets even as they struggled to find institutional support. Their regrets were echoed by administrators of various programs who lamented their lack of resources and funding.

Institutional Roadblocks to Mental Health

It sometimes seems we live in times when talk of caring about mental health is high but true action in prioritizing it seems low. This unfortunate phenomenon is not limited to the military’s efforts to care for veterans. To anyone reading this consider your own profession. Have you ever been told by managers or administrators how much you’re valued only to have more work placed on your plate without proper support? Have you heard your leaders occasionally discuss mental health while the procedures and regulations (which contribute to stress and low morale) remain unchanged? People’s priorities often shine through in their actions, though the words they use matter as well.

If you are a teacher reading this you likely have heard the phrase “data driven decision making.” Data is often used to bolster a sense of authority and create the illusion of deeper understanding. In education this means practice is subordinate to scientific knowledge and teachers are expected to comply with what is considered the truth (Sergiovani, 1992). Of course, data is also subject to agendas. How often have you seen data from both sides of an issue presented by a leader? It is so odd how all the data aligns with their priorities. This may also explain why data concerning healthy work environments is rarely shared. When the topic is broached it is often delivered with all the vigor one dedicates to checking a box. So strange that, despite the existence of a mountain of data concerning healthy work environments and its positive impact on productivity, such information is rarely shared or embraced. Data is linked to agenda, and if you work in place where mental health data isn’t discussed then you can rest assured employee health isn’t a priority.

Back to Michael Tanner

The above passages bring me back to Michael Tanner and the multitudes people striving for mental health. I don’t see enough evidence in the world to convince me a majority of leaders and decision makers either understand or grasp its value. Perhaps they just can’t figure out how to monetize it.

Regardless, your mental health should be important to you, which is why…like Michael…we need to take responsibility for it ourselves even while striving to make it a priority in the larger world. Surround yourself with true friends, those who care deeply for your well being. Discuss your mental health with your doctor just as you would a physical ailment. Share your fears and demons, they may just become smaller in the light. Seek the help of a skilled therapist if needs be. It may well be more beneficial than you think. Lastly, remember that being available for others somehow always seems to bring help back to you. It’s one of my favorite aspects of life. I have no data to support that, just joyous memories. Our small communities often succeed where larger institutions fail.

I wish you well. I hope you are free of your personal basement. Take care of yourself and others. And keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!

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