Does Adversity Damage Us?

Mental health has become a hot topic in schools.  We know that academic achievement is not just about good teaching.  If people aren’t mentally healthy, their ability to learn and grow will not be optimal.  So, we in the education system are spending a lot of time trying to find ways to provide a safe and supportive environment for students so that they can flourish.  And rightfully so.

I was involved in a conversation recently about advocating for increased mental health services in schools.  But there was something about the conversation that didn’t sit quite right with me.  In order to make the case for a mental health initiative, numbers needed to be gathered.  How many students had been diagnosed with a mental health condition?  How many students were living with someone with a diagnosis?  How many students had required crisis intervention?

I understand that this is the way the world works.  Money for new initiatives only flows when a need is identified.  But what bothers me about this is the assumption that support is something that is only required when someone has a diagnosis.  I know many people who have a diagnosis who are doing just fine, and don’t require a lot of extra support from their school.  And alternately, I know many people without a diagnosis who could really benefit from services.

I hate the assumption that just because you have faced adversity means you need help.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with needing help.  None of us can make it through life all alone.  We all need help sometimes.  And certainly there are circumstances that increase the risk that we will experience difficulty.  However, just because you were abused, or grew up in poverty, or live with an alcoholic doesn’t automatically mean you have been damaged.  Certainly those things create challenges in life that can be incredibly difficult to overcome, and it would be naïve to think that they don’t matter.  But living through adversity can also teach you how strong you are.

I often ask my students when they are feeling overwhelmed if they have lived through tougher times than this, and most often I can see this question helps them reconnect with that part of themselves that is a survivor.  They are able to remember the strategies that have carried them through before, think about the lessons they’ve learned in the past, and apply this to their current situation.

Ironically, as I was chewing on these thoughts, I came across this TED Talk about hiring practices, and why the perfect resume may not belong to the person who is best for the job:

You cannot judge a person based solely on their diagnosis or other challenges they may have encountered.  What’s much more important than what we have lived through is whether or not we have learned and become stronger because of it.

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