The pain behind the laughter

The recent news that Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams committed suicide once again brings the topic of mental health to the forefront of our collective conversations.

As President Obama said in his public statement, “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.”  Williams was also a victim of depression—a disease that can be as deadly as cancer and one he expertly hid from the world behind his comic genius and memorable characters.

With the start of a new semester just around the corner, Williams’ death can serve as a cautionary tale for anyone working in higher education. Let’s remember new and returning students may view the pressures they face in the University environment as fierce. Some students may already suffer from depression, and others may succumb to anxiety, stress, and substance abuse over the course of a challenging semester. In order to help students realize their dreams, we must first ensure they stay physically and emotionally healthy.

Earlier this year I attended a mental health and wellness event called A Town Hall Without Walls on Pace’s New York City Campus. The event highlighted our nationally accredited Counseling Center’s great work helping students address depression and other issues that can lead to suicide.

The event’s speakers emphasized that depression is treatable, but only if the person seeks treatment. We can all contribute to suicide prevention by keeping an eye out for students who are chronically depressed, never happy, and consumed by helplessness. Helping these young men and women get the counseling they need from trained professionals, like those in the Pace Counseling Center, is part of our sacred trust to look out for the welfare of our students.

The Power Within

I recently saw a television commercial for the Thai Life Insurance Company. The commercial is called “Unsung Hero” and it reminded me how powerfully our words and actions can reverberate with others and across time.

In the commercial, a young Thai man regularly waters the same dying plant, helps the same sour-looking woman push a heavy product-laden cart over a curb, feeds the same stray dog, leaves fruit for the same elderly neighbor, and gives money to the same barefoot, poorly dressed, sad-looking little girl on a street corner. Each time, onlookers shake their heads in disbelief. The expressions on their faces speak volumes—what a waste of time and effort!

Over time, however, the plant slowly sprouts buds and turns green. The woman with the heavy cart begins to smile and treat her customers better. The dog becomes the man’s best friend, and the elderly neighbor returns his kindness. In the most moving scene, the young man approaches the spot where the young girl sits on the sidewalk. His head is down as he looks in his wallet. He finally looks up and realizes the girl isn’t there. A worried expression crosses his face. Then the girl calls out from down the street. Instead of dirty clothes, she is wearing a brand new school uniform. The girl is smiling.

The commercial reminded me that we never realize just how much our empathy and efforts can help others. Once, early in my career, an acquaintance was lamenting his failure to land his dream job. In these situations, I try and remain upbeat and supportive. I probably told him to keep refining his skills, networking, interviewing, and, eventually, he would get the job. Years later we reconnected. He said he was working in his dream job; just as I had said he would. He remembered our conversation years later. I am sure that it was not my words that gave him the hope he needed to chase the role he loved. It was the human connection, my willingness to help and express my confidence in him.

Our small acts of kindness can not only change one life, but many. If the Thai man’s acts of kindness encouraged the little girl in the commercial to excel in school, she might become a doctor or a teacher and change the lives of people she would never have touched if not for the kindness of the commercial’s hero and others like him.

We all have the power to create a ripple effect of positive behaviors and outcomes. While these acts ordinarily won’t make us rich financially, they make us rich of heart and spirit. And sometimes they make us better off financially as well. See the interesting book Give and Take by Adam Grant. Grant’s analysis shows that being a “giver” rather than a “taker” often leads to career success.