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Lessons from Mr. Rogers

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By Claudia Gold, MD

In the recent movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor we see how Fred Rogers calmly and brilliantly engages young people in discussion about very difficult subjects, including death. In the recent movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor we see how Fred Rogers calmly and brilliantly engages young people in discussion about very difficult subjects, including death. Using his puppet characters, he addressed the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Challenger explosion. 

A recent conversation with a colleague about the epidemic of suicide in young people made me wish to bring Mr. Rogers back to life to do a program about this fraught subject. She noted that young people lack role models for engaging in uncomfortable discussions. They may feel helpless and unprepared when a friend brings up the common experience of suicidal fantasies. 

When two public figures died from suicide in the spring of 2018, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman noted that the subject of suicide terrifies people. When a young person tries to talk about such thoughts and fantasies, and his friends, lacking experience engaging in messy and uncomfortable exchanges, back away, the isolating sense of shame may increase. Certainly, young people must recognize the limits of their abilities. Connecting friends who are struggling with appropriate resources is essential. But when people close with us can stay present with–or bear witness to–painful feelings, that in and of itself may decrease the sense of social isolation.

This is one dimension of current research being conducted at the Austen Riggs Center: to, as Research Psychologist Dr. Katie Lewis states, “understand specifically how daily interpersonal interactions influence the frequency and intensity of suicidal thoughts and urges . . . and identify the distant and nearby pathways that lead an individual to be at heightened risk for suicide.” 

Clearly, there is a great difference between conversations among teenagers and those of adults with children. Past Erikson Scholar at Riggs Ellen Handler Spitz identified an article that addresses the controversial nature of talking with young children about suicide, calling for more children’s literature on the subject. The article’s author wrote a novel aimed at an audience of middle school age children after the father of her daughter’s best friend died by suicide. She describes the discomfort she elicited when she told a range of people about the subject matter. 

In a recent New York Times Op Ed, Columnist David Brooks refers to the “holy messiness of actual pluralistic community.” Rather than engaging in the mess, we see people increasingly clinging to rigid positions, with fear dominating our social interactions. This behavior may serve as a negative role model, teaching young people to avoid rather than engage in challenging discussions. 

Mr. Rogers, in contrast, offered a positive role model, addressing uncomfortable subjects with nonjudgmental language. The gentle quality, or prosody, of his voice conveyed a sense of safety. Perhaps this is the central lesson to take from the film. We need to demonstrate to young people that we are not afraid to engage in difficult conversations of all kinds, that we trust each other to be able to move through mess to find solutions. 

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