My dear Ladies and Gents,
Today, I'm going to address mental wellness – and an intriguing discovery I've made during my two and half terms teaching a course called Leadership in Society at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology.
The unwritten subtitle of this course and the actual subtitle of the text is For College Students Who Want to Make a Difference.
You may be wondering – what is going on here? What has this to do with "Coming Out Crazy"?
Please suspend your willingness to disbelieve for a minute while I stretch William Taylor Coleridge's theory a bit. You'll get my drift. Trust me.
This weekend, I was immersed in marking the online journals my 42 students write, based on questions I pose. This is a private blog. They don't see or comment on each others' posts. It's their opportunity to have a private dialogue with me.
Many of my questions are reflective, yet reference the text either directly or obliquely. (That way, I know they're reading it.)
Many of these students chose this elective thinking they would learn how to boss people around.
If they do the work. Follow the course mantra – Woody Allen's: "Ninety percent of success is showing up." They have a good chance of getting excellent marks – which matters enormously to them.
They also learn something entirely new in an academic setting. Self-awareness. Teamwork. Empowerment. The power of Listening. The difference between ethics and morals, values and beliefs. And how good it feels to help others.
They develop, evolve and walk away from this course with a sense of "community" and the personal gratification that comes from the work they do in and outside the classroom – which matters enormously to me.
They're required to do 20-hours of volunteer work (for 30% of their final mark) – outside all their curricular activities – with any agency or organization they choose, as long as those agencies or organizations are not for profit.
The majority – about 95% – are either International students or from vast, delightfully diverse backgrounds. It's amazing how much I learn from them.
This is a Community Service course – and I love Barack Obama's take on it. After all, he's first and foremost, a community organizer.
The classroom is a community. The college is a community. Out there, in the real world, many of these students belong to other communities – ethnic, religious, political, neighbourhood, familial, friendship, sports, hobbies – the list is endless.
Leadership in this course is for Social Change – a process everyone can learn and participate in.
Three major skill sets are stressed – teamwork, communications and self-awareness.
I noticed some amazing insights reading my students' journals. The question that sparked these insights concerned their personal strengths and weaknesses – self-awareness.
Many of my students – ages 18 and 20 – wrote so thoughtfully about what they perceived to be their personal strengths and weaknesses. They opened up about feeling excluded when they first moved here from their native countries, knowing no English. They wrote about the personal pain they felt when kids in school treated them like outcasts, because they seemd so "different."
I also asked them to reflect on how they overcame those feelings.
Invariably, they wrote about one person reaching out. Perhaps a very sensitive teacher, or another kid who had similar experiences. Always, it was someone who listened and held out a hand of hope.
This was universal. Even for Canadian-born kids in new schools. Most interesting was how they all found ways to overcome those painful feelings, which relate to being perceived as "different."
We're all different.
I think mental illnesses are all about "difference" – being perceived as a little too different.
And mental health is about feeling included.
Generally, as a society, "being different," or perhaps a little "too different," is difficult to accept. It's easier to alienate, isolate, shut away, turn a blind eye, ignore, stay ignorant, or even fearful.
The history of "madness" – the term "mental illness" is relatively new – goes back to the beginning of time. It's about powerful perceived difference. French philosopher, historian and sociologist Michel Foucault described "mental illness" as the "Leprosy of the 20th Century."
We're all feeling the stresses of the Recession. Exhaustion. Longer hours. Heavier workloads. Uncertainty. Now is the time for community service – a great tonic for these stresses. Pressures. Gloom and doom.
I don't just preach this stuff. Seneca asked me to develop this course because of my history of community service, particularly my mental health advocacy. I'm giving a keynote at Queen's University this week and writing an article for a scholarly journal inspired by this blog!
It feels great.
Want to get over depression? Anxiety? Consider committing to a good cause.
Drive for the Canadian Cancer Society or deliver Meals on Wheels. You'll discover it's not the "driving" that feels so good, but the relationships you develop with the people you drive and deliver meals to – and the people administering these essential services.
You get much more than you give by involvement with community organizations dedicated to making positive, meaningful differences for the Greater Good.
Like Habitat for Humanity – a favourite among my students.
This "work" lifts your spirits. Gives you a sense of belonging. Inclusiveness. Empowerment. Purpose.
A natural high. You feel connected. Less alone.
It's mentally healthy. For you. Everyone.
Thought I'd share that with you on this beautiful, bright, sunny, soon-to-be Spring March day.
Take good care!