Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Coats of Many Colors

I have a thing for coats, so you can imagine my delight on Inauguration Day. Coats of many colors were on full display. Coats negotiate the space between inside and out. On the exterior, coats shield us from the elements. On the interior, they nestle against our bodies so we feel warm and protected. When carefully considered – and certainly that was the case on Inauguration Day – this public-facing garment is also exquisitely personal. Packed with meaning. Intended to be seen. Coats tell stories.

What do the inauguration coats say about mental health?

1. Kamala Harris in purple. Vice President Kamala Harris wore a coat designed by rising-star Black designer Christopher John Rogers. Purple is the color that has come to represent unity and bipartisanship. When we mix Republican red and Democratic blue we get purple. Vice President Harris’ purple coat was also a nod to women’s suffrage. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, wore purple when running for president in 1972. Harris’ coat told the story of where she came from and where she hopes to lead the country. From a mental health perspective, knowing one’s self, the values we hold most dear, and the virtues we aspire to embody are foundational to our mental health and wellbeing. At a societal level, when women’s rights and gender equality are elevated, mental health moves in the same direction. Whether we are talking politics, race or gender, purple conveys the idea that the way forward is together. This will entail some difficult conversations, careful listening, and abiding hope – all key to our mental health as well.

2. Jill Biden in sparkling blue. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden wore an ocean blue wool tweed coat by American designer Alexandra O’Neill of the Markarian label. At least two mental health themes are woven into this coat. As far back as the middle ages, blue symbolizes loyalty and truth. Loyalty and truth build trust. Trust is foundational to interpersonal functioning. It is foundational to the public good. Individually and collectively, we know that fostering trust has positive effects on mental health and wellbeing. The second mental health thread in Dr. Biden’s coat is the Buddhist idea of the ‘blue sky.’ The blue sky is always there, even when hidden by stormy clouds. Our thoughts and emotions can create a lot of mental and psychological noise that obscure this blue sky. Mindfulness meditation aims to connect us to this vast, luminous, calm, and clear headspace. Like flying in a plane on a cloudy day, once we ascend the cloud layer we find it ready and waiting.

3. Lady Gaga in navy. We are talking about coats, but I cannot write about Lady Gaga without a shout out to her abundant and full red skirt! Her navy blue jacket was really just a backdrop for a humongous gold dove adornment that stood out like a sort of modern day coat of arms. Coats of arms have been displayed on outer garments since medieval Europe. They are imbued with colors and symbols that tell one’s history and project one’s aspirations. Lady Gaga’s dove holding an olive branch was an unambiguous bid for peace. The search for inner peace, in one form or another, rests at the heart of psychotherapy. The mental health costs for survivors of political unrest, social upheaval, and war are well documented – from refugees, to veterans, to children. We should not only listen to Lady Gaga’s extraordinary voice, but also heed her message of peace.

4. Bernie Sanders in a parka. Before the inauguration was over, dozens of images of Senator Sanders went viral on social media. His practical winter coat, made in Burlington, VT, is the same one he wore while campaigning that became the ubiquitous “I am once again asking” meme. Sanders’ ensemble was complete with mittens knitted from repurposed wool sweaters and lined with fleece made of recycled plastic bottles. What are the relevant mental health themes? There are so many. My favorites are dignity and resilience. Whatever your politics, Bernie campaigned with dignity. He lost with dignity. He continues to show up. And let’s add the mental health benefits of a good laugh. Bernie’s team has already seized the moment to spread joy by selling sweatshirts with the viral inauguration image emblazoned on front.

5. Amanda Gorman in yellow. Twenty-two year old L.A. native, Ms. Amanda Gorman, is the youngest poet laureate to write and recite a piece at a US presidential inauguration. She follows in the footsteps of others such as Maya Angelou who recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and Robert Frost who recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at President Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. Ms. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb” spoke of growth that follows grief, hope that follows hurt, and stepping into the past we inherit to repair it. Grief, hope and repair are essential themes of mental health. Her yellow coat says it all (and oh, that red headband!) Wow. Let the sun shine!

Maybe the most famous coat of all time is Joseph’s coat of many colors from the Book of Genesis, which Andrew Lloyd Weber renamed the ‘amazing technicolor dreamcoat’ in his twentieth century musical. The inauguration of the forty-sixth president of the United States will go down in history for its coats of many colors filled with many dreams. They were coats and colors that tell stories of history, inclusion, empowerment of women, difficult conversations, careful listening, hope, trust, truth, sustainability, grief, dignity, resilience, peace, laughter, and blue skies. Coats and colors of mental health.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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