Monday Musings…What AM I Doing Here?

The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us that mental health is created within the setting we find ourselves. So where are you right now as you read this?

Think of the physical space you are in. Look around. What are you surrounded by…the sights, the sounds, the smells… Who are you surrounded by? Or are you alone? Wherever you are physically, it is affecting you mentally. Think about it for a moment– you know this to be true.

This year I found myself in a variety of settings: rural, urban, with those of lower socioeconomic status and those privileged to be in the upper class, and I know for a fact that each one impacted my mental health in a pretty significant way. As a self-professed junkie of people watching, it never ceased to amaze me this year how complex, and yet how common the human race is.

When it comes to mental health, the WHO also tells us there are four pillars of mental health: to realize our own abilities, to be able to cope with the normal stressors of life, to believe that we are working productively, and contribute to our community. These four pillars really boil down to one solid foundation – to have a sense of purpose. What am I placed on this earth to do? It’s a question that people of every age and stage of life ask themselves. And we know if we can answer that question we will feel incredibly strong mentally and physically!

So this year I undertook a daunting task. I stepped away from the College classroom to create a program to empower grade 12 students to be able to answer that same question – what am I supposed to do with my life? And wow, what a year it has been!

It all began with the formation of an incredible team of college students, who, like the high school students are on the very same journey trying to find their path. They are only a little ahead of the curve, or as they like to say, they are slightly adultier adults. I partnered and dreamed with the college students and together we created a curriculum that we would deliver at three strategic points in the grade 12 year when we knew major decisions would need to be made and stress would be high. Our plan was to infiltrate the setting the grade 12s were in and begin to stir that wellspring of purpose and hope for the future.

From that very first encounter in each school we went into, we had throngs of students thanking the team for their honesty, their stories of courage, and how they could relate to them. They told us they couldn’t wait for the college students to come back again. The key to our work was to build intentional connections and we formed those right off the bat, in every school.

Because it was a research project, the high schools students completed self-evaluation forms and many took the opportunity to share more about their lives and their fears. By the end of the project we had made significant differences in the wellbeing of the high school students, and you know what? It didn’t matter what school they came from, they all had similar worries. You see whether a person is poor or whether they are rich, money is still a concern, relationships are still a problem, and uncertainty about the future is still a reality. It also doesn’t matter whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert, the struggle is just as real.

So we tracked the high school students from November through May to see if the interaction with the college team would influence their mental health and the results literally blew us away! In each and every school we left an impact. At the end of the third presentation, we were able to improve students’ understanding of mental health, the rating of their own mental health, their ability to cope and their confidence leaving high school. And there was one more significant result – we were able to reduce their feeling of being overwhelmed. In essence, the high school students found their purpose and felt ok about taking the next step in their lives!

How were we able to do this? It comes back to the WHO statements. The college team walked into the settings of the high school students and provided an authentic presentation of life beyond high school and what it took for the college students to pull themselves to victory after defeat, rejection, disappointment, and discouragement. No one goes through life unscathed. Every change brings challenges. So whether the struggles were minor fears or major frustrations, the high school students heard about the power of resilience. We all need to learn what our abilities are and how much we can handle! We all need to feel like what we are doing matters to us and to others. That feeling of making a difference in this world, through what we do, even to one person, is incredibly empowering. Or as the WHO states - that is mental health!

And so there was one more awesome outcome of this year, and that was the effect the project had on the college team. The cohesion of the group was like no other I have experienced and the personal growth for them was exponential. Their individual testimonies of how they felt leaving that level of impact was icing on the cake for me at the end of this year’s work.

You see there is purpose in pain. There is shelter in the storm that’s raging on and on for some who cannot see the way out. There is clarity when the fog lifts as Ryan wrote last week. And there is tremendous reciprocal power in sharing –how what we have gone through can be the catalyst for positive mental health in a stranger and in ourselves.

The purpose of your life is to take what you’ve been through and use it to encourage someone else that no matter how hard it gets, there is always a path leading towards victory. If you are looking for purpose, even if it may be confusing in the moment, and fears may overwhelm, look to those adultier adults who at one point in their lives didn’t know either. Intentionally connect with someone who can guide you towards the answer. It’s there.

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon