Mental Health Matters: We can be heroes — for more than one day (opinion) |

Mental Health Matters: We can be heroes — for more than one day (opinion)

Andrew Whyman
File photo |

We need heroes in our lives. Heroes lift us up, inspire and energize us. They give us hope, a guiding light in the dark. They tell us about who we are and who we hope to become.

Heroes are particularly important for youth because youth are impressionable, vulnerable, easily moved by emotion, given to impulsive action, and lack firmly grounded principles to inform those actions.

If, as a child and adolescent, we fail to establish a clear code of right and wrong, a moral compass to guide right action, it’s difficult to do so as an adult.

Fortunate kids acquire good, healthy role models as heroes. Contrast kids growing up in secure, loving households with the ordeal of many poverty stricken youth born into broken families and bleak futures. The former choose aspirational heroes, particularly sports heroes — the latter, not infrequently glamor, glitz or amoral aspirants.

Adults also need heroes. Adult life is sometimes tortuous or threatening. Heroes help us develop wisdom. They lift us up when we fall. They inspire us to persevere in the face of adversity.

I grew up a Jewish boy in a post-Holocaust America at the end of WW II in a stable and loving family. Lucky for me.

My hero of youth was Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play professional baseball. I didn’t understand why I chose Jackie back then, but he was a fearless athlete, mesmerizingly daring on the base path, a threat to steal any base, at any time, even home plate.

As a Little-League All-Star I had baseball aspirations. This lasted until, well, high school when I learned I wasn’t really all that exceptional an athlete.

It was only later in life that I came to realize some of the deeper causes of my Robinson hero worship; he and I were both persecuted minorities and my Dad was a civil rights activist who taught me that skin color is just that, and only that.

Adults also need heroes. Adult life is sometimes tortuous or threatening. Heroes help us develop wisdom. They lift us up when we fall. They inspire us to persevere in the face of adversity. They call on us to be our best selves when it’s easier to just “go along to get along.”

Truth be told, the evolving Trump story worries me, upsets me. I fear for the future, but hope for the best. I can’t see how many of Trump’s governing choices will improve on the conditions that got Trump elected in the first place.

So, searching for someone to inspire me again, to put things in perspective, to help me recollect that good people with commitment can still do great things, I found a book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” written by Tracy Kidder. What caught my eye was the subtitle, “The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world.”

I read the book in a few breathless days. And recalled a lesson I taught patients; “Pick yourself up off the floor, and you’re moving. Lie there and die.”

Paul Farmer is a Harvard trained physician with an additional doctorate in anthropology. He had just the sort of early life experience and native ability that sometimes produces a rare talent.

His early years were unconventional; Dad was sharp-elbowed and overly strict, mother a surpassingly bright and nurturing presence. The family moved frequently, struggling financially, living on a boat, in the family bus and a tent. Dad had a fondness for underdogs, a trait young Paul grew to admire. While still an undergraduate, Paul met a fearless nun working with the United Farm Workers and migrant Haitian farmworkers.

He learned about Haiti, concluding that Haitians were “the shafted of the shafted.” He had found his life’s mission, bringing first world health care to a people living under third world conditions.

It’s a remarkable story of a brilliant medical doctor who took great pride in his doctoring and his devotion to identifying poverty as a central cause of otherwise entirely preventable infectious disease, disability, suffering and death.

While most academics marveled at what they saw as his sacrifices over the years — walking the dirt roads of Haiti to provide medical care with little sleep, no hot or running water, no family around, no investment portfolio, not even a bed to sleep in much of the time — Dr. Farmer was on a mission, and the rest didn’t matter.

So, if our next President ends up creating more miser management, if government policy leads to more mental illness and substance abuse, more suicides, I will channel the good Dr. Farmer to renew my faith.

And here’s a tip if you want in — gather round with family and friends and talk about your heroes.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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