Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Pomp and Circumstance

Okay, I admit I am a graduation junkie. I get choked up with the first notes of Pomp and Circumstance and my tissues are soggy by the time the newly anointed graduates toss their mortar boards with tassels in the air. What’s the big deal, and what does this have to do with mental health?

Graduation is also commonly referred to as commencement – appropriately capturing that this milestone is both a culmination and a beginning. It marks the culmination of an educational journey – or at least the culmination of a significant segment of one’s academic journey – and the beginning of a next life chapter. And although reaching this milestone may be expected in many families and communities, it is hard won for everyone and near impossible to reach for some. We know untreated mental illness is the leading cause of school drop out, and conversely, educational success has positive mental health implications. Five musings about graduation from a psychologist mom whose twins became high school alums this past Tuesday:

1. Adam K. Man, Head of Forman School delivered a commencement speech comprised of three pieces of advice and one wish. A great speech, not only for its clarity and brevity, but its relevance to the students. One piece of advice was to learn to tell three jokes – one for young children, one “G-rated” joke for general audiences, and one that you would only tell your closest friends. This piece of advice is especially intriguing to me because I am a terrible joke teller, and its wisdom was not lost on me. Judgment regarding timing, mastery of material, sensitivity and knowing one’s audience and ability to laugh and bring humor to others are all part of being a good joke teller. They are also part of good mental health.

2. Nicole Beckman, graduating from Riverdale Country School, along with my twins, Julia and Ben, spoke about the extraordinary joy that comes from being part of a community where people trust each other, have honest conversations, work industriously together, make discoveries together, have difficult conversations, learn to respect and not just tolerate but honor and embrace each other’s differences. All good, but she is angry that graduation arrives and this community that they have built together is one that they must let go of – or at least connect to very differently going forward. Graduation is about transitions, and transitions can be difficult. Although long anticipated, the endings and beginnings associated with graduation are stressful. It is a time when familiar supports and routines are likely to change; it is a time when demands and expectations change. It is a time of increased vulnerability for the emergence of mental health problems and a time when resilience is key.

3. Ron Daniels, President of Johns Hopkins University reflected that one of the ultimate goals of a true education is developing the capacity to hold complex and sometimes paradoxical realities in our heads in some integrated way, knitting the conflicts and contradictions together to have a whole understanding. This year has been a challenging one on many university campuses, with Yale, for example, seriously entertaining the possibility of renaming Calhoun College given John Calhoun’s strong defense of slavery. President Daniels acknowledged that Hopkins has similarly problematic names of campus streets and buildings. The challenge, and very much a part of current research in neuroscience and brain development, is understanding how it is that the brain can do such work – from a cellular analysis of memory and reasoning to the social psychological understanding of the historical evolution of values. The eponymously named buildings around campuses and countryside, challenge members of each successive generation as they discover the profound flaws of the earlier generations. President Daniels challenged those at Hopkins’ commencement to recognize that great leaders and heroes are subject to flaws of character as much as everyday citizens, and the sign of a great education is the capacity to recognize this, learn from it, and hold the paradox in one embrace.

4. James Gandre, President of Manhattan School of Music opined on the many gifts of music. One of the first things my son, David, learned to say was, “No sing mommy” so I am sure it was not from me that my son, Benjamin, came into this world tapping his knees and making music with just about anything within reach. As we celebrated his graduation from Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Program, President Gandre spoke about the essence of music to human societies and its capacity to touch the heart, heal the soul, and soothe the mind. Who doesn’t have a favorite song? And don’t we all know the experience of feeling happy or sad when we hear certain songs? The therapeutic value of music in mental health care is being explored and expanded dramatically as the number of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease increases. Music evokes emotions that stimulate memories; musical aptitude frequently endures despite other declines in brain functioning, and studies show that music can be an extremely effective intervention that shifts mood and manages stress for individuals with dementia because a person’s ability to engage with music remains intact even when other brain functioning is impaired.

5. And it is virtually impossible to get through graduation season, without a reference to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 “This is Water” Kenyon commencement speech. I did not attend in person but have listened to it multiple times on the web along with millions of others. An extraordinary speech by a man with a brilliant mind, and a man tormented by depression. “This is Water” is all about mindset. It is a glorious treatise on the importance of understanding how it is that our thinking filters our experiences. It is one of the most beautiful narratives illustrating the underpinnings of cognitive behavioral theory. It is an exceptionally insightful and heartfelt invitation – to each of us to recognize that we have the opportunity to engage intentionally with the wildly overstimulating and complex world in which we live. The fact that David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008 is a testament to the virulence of some forms of mental illness, and the need for all of us to redouble our efforts in understanding the root causes of mental illness and in expanding our capacity to treat mental illness for those who are suffering.

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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