Choice and Mental Health?

Dave McPartlan

As an outdoor enthusiast I look forward to the school holidays to cram as much activity in as possible. However, over this Easter I re-discovered the enjoyment of being able to sit and read without any pressure.

I picked up “The Choice”, by an Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger. Once I started to read it I couldn’t put it down.

‘’The Choice’’  tells Edith’s story.  A child in pre-war Hungary  she was taken, with her family, by the pro-Nazi government to Auschwitz. In this concentration camp her parents were murdered and she and her sister were left alone. After a year in Auschwitz and enduring a number of death marches, Edith and her sister are  left for dead in Gunskirchen, a sub-camp for Mauthausen. From here both were rescued from a pile of corpses by a GI in the liberating US Army.

The book then charts Edith’s  life as she flees to the USA and, in spite of  further prejudice and hardship, she studies and works her way to a doctorate in Psychology, becoming one of the pre-eminent psychologist of her time. She then commits to using her psychology to help others recover from their own traumas and she draws upon her own horrific experiences to help mend and change people’s lives.

There are so many uplifting messages from her story but the one I take away and reflect on is that everything we are comes from within ourselves.

Throughout the book she repeatedly quotes her mother:  “no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind”. This is what sustained her through 1944 when she was the victim of this inhumane treatment at the hand of the Nazis.

What Edith Eger writes about is powerful stuff to reflect upon. In schools we have many children who suffer from trauma and this can impact on their lives in often quite horrendous ways. As a school  desperately trying to make a difference with these children, the question I struggle with is how do we get young people to see that everything comes from within themselves and they do have a choice?

Edith uses examples from her practice to explore the desperately complex nature of survival and recovery from trauma and we are left understanding that there isn’t always a simple solution to the problem. Edith writes that over the many years since her incarceration, she came to see that she had a choice:  either be a victim or take  control of her own destiny. She chose the latter.

For me, a challenge both in schools and in society is clear: how do we  find ways of supporting  young people and their families so that they believe, like Edith, they have a choice over their mental health? However hard it may be, I do believe that as professionals in schools we are key to ensuring that these young people get the opportunity to be empowered to own their own lives and thoughts. The question we need to ask is how do we work with them to ensure they believe they can recover to lead happy, positive and worthwhile lives?

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