by Julia Steiny
May is national Mental Health month.
Full disclosure: For years I've served on the board of the RI Mental Health Association (RIMHA). Why? Because I believe that bar none, the biggest missed opportunity in schools and education is supporting the kids' AND the adults' mental health. After all, what does anyone use to teach or learn if not their mental facilities? Absent robust mental health, precious little learning takes place. I'm astounded this issue never became high priority.
So, I've been planning on writing about this foundational subject throughout May.
Then, as it happened, I started having a mental meltdown of my own — in a life-happens way, not a diagnosable mental illness. Still, as you well know, feeling "crazy" disrupts even a reasonably healthy person's ability to think straight.
So imagine the quality of thought-processing among adults and kids, especially in urban schools, where at least some are traumatized, bullied, depressed.
In my case, a family member very dear to me had broken with us, furious for reasons I still don't understand, leaving me helpless to right whatever was wrong. I can deal with conflict, but not silence. Nothing makes me crazier than sudden, angry, no-end-in-sight, door-slammed-in-your-face disconnection.
Years ago I read that Dr. Daniel Siegel calls this state "toxic rupture." What a relief to have a term for it. Elsewhere, researcher Denise Johnston explained how violence was fundamentally frustrated attachment. I get why people shoot their ex-lovers. It's not an excuse, but radical disconnection seriously unhinges the best of us.
Anyhow, I snapped a few weeks ago and rather than rampaging destructively, acted out by buying two airline tickets to Puebla, Mexico. Fortunately, I could postpone painting my shabby house and instead seek asylum to clear my noisy head.
While not a conventional tourist destination for Americans, Puebla is a surprisingly intact 16th-century city built by the Spanish conquistadores. Gorgeous architecture, museums, preserved homes and cityscapes. Beauty is calming. Warm weather was soothing after New England's unusually grueling winter.
But I'd forgotten that what is most healing, most heartening about Mexico is the families' warmth with one another. Everyone holds hands, links arms — parents and kids, grandmothers and teenage boys, friends and lovers, married and not. People maimed by birth defects, missing limbs and developmental delays stroll with the others, tethered firmly by family solidarity. My husband and I ambled repeatedly through the zocalo, observing happy family groups enjoying each other as much as we savored the art and antiquities. Moms publically nuzzle little ones, both of them giggling. Discrete nursing takes place all over. Fathers and grandfathers, in heavy boots and plaster-splotched clothing, proudly hold the hands of impeccably-dressed children, including teenagers.
Mexican public spaces offer families opportunities to connect with one another as abundant as the exotic offerings in the open-air markets. Parents spoil the kids with one of the vendors' toys to keep a group of them entertained, so grown-ups can chat with one another. When it was time to go home, one mom called her son saying, "Victor, mi vida (my life)," we're leaving now, in a tone of voice that means Now. Firm, but so affectionate.
The Mexicans seem scrupulous about taking ugly fights indoors. You never see the public nastiness that has become normal here in the U.S..
They cultivate connection. They look content, not stressed, angry or in high rebellion. I imagine, though I have no way of knowing, they have strong mental health.
Mind you, I realize that Mexican students are in no way lighting the boards with their terrific test results. Mexico's new president Enrique Nieto is gung-ho about improving education, but he'll have a tough go. My husband finally asked me to quit mentioning it every time a flock of school-age kids were up late on a school night or seemingly not going to school at all. My sister, who's lived off and on in Mexico for years, says, "The Mexicans could care less about self-improvement; they'd much rather stay home and play with the new baby." A sweeping generalization, to be sure.
But surely a balance could be struck between the pleasure Mexicans take in their families, and the way some of our ambitious families — and schools — drive the kids to perform. Hanging out is fun, but so is the feeling of having mastered a task, a musical instrument, or any physical or intellectual challenge. Short-term experiences of successful mastery would make schooling far more appealing to kids than the relentless, droning push to produce performance results that will one day, in some abstract future, yield a lot of money.
We are sentient beings, hard-wired in our mammalian brains to be attached — to one another and to personal passions. Regaining my own mental health will mean healing the disconnection that distresses me still. In the meantime, I feel palpably how my somewhat-obsessive yearning disrupts my thinking. How on earth can promoting mental health be ignored as the platform on which all else educational is built? I've wondered this for years.
There is no health without mental health is this year's slogan for RIMHA's May campaign this year. So true; so timely.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.