This spring is the first time since I can remember that I do not have any children, nieces, nephews, other close family, and friends graduating from high school or university. While most people I know would consider this a blessing, as a committed graduation junkie, I couldn’t stay away and have gotten my annual fix by foraging for graduation speeches online.
I am fascinated by the way graduation speeches provide a lens on societal values, perennial challenges, existential truths, and how they matter and get framed in the moment. Rarely are graduation speeches about mental health; although, in truth, they are all and always about mental health. So, as has become an annual Five on Friday tradition, here are five speeches that caught my attention this season.
1. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine. Yesterday, Ukraine President Zelenskyy delivered a surprise address via livestream at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to the class of 2023. He spoke about time. “Every person eventually realizes that time is the most valuable resource on the planet, not oil or uranium, not lithium or anything else, but time. Time. The very flow of time convinces us of this. Some people realize this sooner, and these are the lucky ones. Others realize it too late when they lose someone or something. People cannot avoid it. This is just a matter of time.” A function of our human brains and conscientiousness, we each have the burden and privilege of grappling with how we spend our time in life. This wrestling sits at the center of meaning making and is integral to life satisfaction, purpose, psychological well being, and mental health.
2. Jason Kander, President of National Expansion, Veterans Community Project. Awarded an honorary degree by his alma mater, Jason Kander addressed graduates at Georgetown University. Having an illustrious military and political career, Kander was the clear front runner in the 2018 Kansas City mayoral election when he withdrew from the race due to debilitating mental health concerns, including suicidal thoughts, that gained on him as a result of untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Speaking from experience, he told graduates, “I am not here today to inspire you to think of others. I’m actually here today to inspire you to think of yourself. My message to you today is one that I learned the hard way: that there is nothing selfish about self-care, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t change the world. But if you do, you just might.” Author of NY Times Best Selling book, Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD, he writes with disarming candor how failing to address his own mental health needs was more life threatening than his time in Afghanistan and how having access to effective treatment and social connection can be life saving when it comes to mental health.
3. Kathy Killian Noe, Founder of Recovery Cafe and Recovery Cafe Network. A Wake Forest alumna, author, pastor, and founder of the Recovery Café and the Recovery Café Network, Noe’s commencement speech emphasized the role of social connection in mental health and addiction recovery. She is passionate about creating spaces where people who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and other mental health challenges can develop a sense of belonging, rebuild their lives, and contribute to their communities. Supported by a slew of data, Noe believes that mental health depends on social connection. Given that mental health and addiction challenges are common, and that “No one gets out of a deep pit on their own… No one accomplishes anything of lasting value on their own,” she urged graduates to recognize that “proximity makes real relationships possible, [and] that real relationships are what change us and will ultimately change our world.”
4. Harrison Butker, City Chiefs kicker. A 2016 alumnus of Georgia Institute of Technology, Harrison Butker delivered a commencement speech that went viral as he offered what he called a “controversial antidote” to some of the mental health concerns of our times. He noted, “Studies have shown one of the many negative effects of the pandemic is that a lot of young adults feel a sense of loneliness, anxiety, and depression despite technology that has connected us more than ever before. It would seem the more connected people are to one another, the more they feel alone. I’m not sure the root of this, but at least I can offer one controversial antidote that I believe will have a lasting impact for generations to come: get married and start a family.” Of course, there is no single nor guaranteed path to a life well-lived, but for many people, sustaining a meaningful relationship with a life partner and raising children are associated with significant mental health benefits. His comments have elicited a wide response, including intense objection from those who find the message provincial and narrow. I find it interesting that such a traditional bit of advice could unleash so much backlash. Of course, it is not right for everyone, but none of the advice offered in a graduation speech is right for everyone.
5. Oprah Winfrey, Media Entrepreneur and Talk Show Host. Oprah has delivered many commencement speeches over the years. For 2023, Oprah returned to her alma mater, Tennessee State University, where she graduated in 1987 with a degree in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Oprah urged graduates to fight cynicism with hope. For those listeners who want to “change the world,” she urged them to start small. “This is what I know for sure: there will never be anything in your life as fulfilling as making a difference in somebody else’s. Everybody here wants to see you take your integrity, your curiosity, your creativity, your guts and this newfound education of yours and use it to make a difference. Everybody always thinks you got to go do something big and grand. I’ll tell you where you start. You start by being good to at least one other person every single day. Just start there. That’s how you begin to change the world. By just being good to one other person.” The intimate link between kindness and mental health is well documented.
Some of my other commencement favorites from previous years can be found here, and for those who tossed their mortarboards to the sky this season, congratulations!