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Five ways Mister Rogers taught us to talk about mental health

I grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I enjoyed his sweater-and-shoes routine, his neighborhood of make-believe, his how-things-are-made videos, and especially his songs.

Only recently have I begun to understand that Fred Rogers was gently teaching me how to talk about my feelings and protect my mental health.

Here are five ways I have noticed that Mister Rogers taught generations of young viewers how to discuss mental health concerns.

One. Mister Rogers taught us that is appropriate and good to share our feelings. In 1969, while pleading for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee to grant significant funding that would support the growth of national public television, he said:

"If we in public television can make clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health."

Mr. Rogers taught children about deep and complicated feelings, like those surrounding death, disaster, and divorce. He discussed the JFK assassination with puppets. He created a safe space for saying, "I'm not okay" long before t-shirt slogans made it more comfortable to speak up.

Two. Mister Rogers taught us that growing up means learning how appropriately act on negative feelings when we have them. A young viewer sent this question to Mr. Rogers:

"What do you do with the mad that you feel?"

Mr. Rogers responded with a now-famous song that not only acknowledged the validity of angry feelings but taught how to channel those feelings appropriately.

What do you do with the mad that you feel When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong… And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag? Or see how fast you go?

Inserting other emotion words into the lyrics is useful, too. What do you do with the despair that you feel? The embarrassment? The guilt? The shame? Creating lists of useful activities is a great exercise in redirection. You might go for a walk, talk to a friend, or write in your journal.

Three. Mister Rogers taught us to look for the helpers.

"When I was a boy and would see something scary in the news, my mother would say, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

This is a reassuring recommendation for those who battle mental illness. We think or see or say scary things sometimes. Isn't it beautiful to consider that people are willing to help? A helper could be a friend or a co-worker, a family member, or a roommate. A helper could be a doctor or a therapist. If you are struggling, look for the helpers.

Four. Mister Rogers taught us to have realistic expectations of ourselves and others.

"Some days, doing 'the best we can' may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn't perfect on any front and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else."

Today's internet culture often demands perfection, and comparing ourselves with a filtered view of YouTube and Pinterest stars can leave us feeling decidedly less-than. We would do well to remember Mr. Rogers' kind and reassuring wisdom, extending that grace to ourselves and others.

Five. Mister Rogers taught us that we each have intrinsic value, regardless of our circumstances.

"As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression."

What if everyone adopted that mantra and looked for the good in others? What if each of us helped our friends and neighbors, the strangers on the street, the store clerks and office mates we see every day understand the unique and beautiful qualities inside of them?

You might be hoping that someone will discover your beautiful parts. I know how that feels, too. To that, I say what Fred Rogers would say: "It's you I like, just you, yourself, it's you."

This touching video includes an unscripted, unrehearsed segment from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in 1981. He and his friend, five-year-old Jeff Erlanger, conclude the segment by singing the song from which that quote is taken: "It's You I Like."

Fred Rogers was a remarkable man who devoted his life to teaching and strengthening children, but his reach has eclipsed many generations. His curriculum was broad but rooted in the validity and beauty of feelings and loving self and others. Kudos to Mister Rogers, a mental health genius in his time.

P.S. For a sweet follow-up to the interview above, go here.


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