Solving the mental health epidemic starts with trust

Mental health, boxing, and truth

Any real solution to the mental health epidemic is hard to come by. The modern age of capitalistic therapy has come under fire, and so have SSRIs. Philosopher and former boxer, Gordon Marino, argues for the type of relationship that truly heals.
With the nearly daily mass murderous shootings, there has been a reasonable outcry for more mental health services, more counselors. As someone who has been one of the troubled and troubling teens once in dire need of support and as someone who, much later in life, has tried to provide a guidewire to young people on the edge of throwing away their lives, it is essential to recognize that more than pills and 30-minute zoom counselling sessions, more than anything, we need to build trust.

In his classic 1950 study Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson, delineated a set of psychosocial stages everyone has to negotiate in order to become a thriving human being.  Each step requires overcoming an obstacle, and produces a virtue or vice.  The first stage is basic trust vs mistrust, followed by autonomy vs shame and doubt, initiative vs guilt, industry vs inferiority, identity vs confusion, intimacy vs isolation, generativity vs stagnation, integrity vs despair.


We all need the sunlight of affirmation to develop into individuals with a good sense of ourselves and the trust to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to make meaningful connections


Basic Trust involves “consistency, continuity, sameness of experience” which culminate in what Erikson describes as providing “a rudimentary sense of ego identity” and an attitude of hope and trust in people and the surrounding world. Something akin to confidence, this trust is required for individuals to establish close and impactful relationships.

Forgive this hairpin turn, but for years, I have supervised a local boxing club which has always attracted teens who if not homeless come from homes ringing with shouts, slamming doors, and violence. Not surprisingly many of the kids who grow up in these domestic war zones come to school with backpacks rife with rage. Invariably they mouth off act out and understandably get nothing but grief from teachers and administrators. We all need the sunlight of affirmation to develop into individuals with a good sense of ourselves and the trust to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to make meaningful connections with others. But the hordes of individuals who get nothing but the door slammed in their faces or who are treated as invisible, often lack the trust and hope to make any use of the counsellors we are calling for.
I have encountered them in the gym and elsewhere- that is, young people so wounded and angry that they may say the right things but won’t even look you in the eyes and when it comes to boxing, you can be sure that unless you somehow can earn their trust, they won’t be showing up at the gym for long.

As a criminal teen with ambitions of getting involved in organized crime, I was one of those troubled and edgy teens. Had it not been for two mentors who refused to let me disappear, who went the extra three miles and tracked me down, I don’t believe I would have survived.

However, to think that kids coming from the topsy-turvy backgrounds in which the only thing they might be able to count on were chaos and an apartment shaking with screams and hate, to think that these wounded youngsters would be able to look for and open-up to a counselor, is naive.

Once more, youngsters who have not been listened to, who have not been able to come home after school and cry to their mom or dad about a bully, or maybe not making the soccer team, are not going to be adept at listening to themselves. Young people who never had an adult that would listen to them are usually deficient in their ability for self-reflection, for coughing up their feelings and fears. In short, those in the most dire need of a guiding hand, those who lack trust in others are going to be the hardest to reach.


Pills aside, it is relationships that heal


>If we are going to cultivate relationships with the kids who need it most, we need to listen to them and build trust. That requires time and consistency. That is one of the reasons why I am a long-time boxing mentor. The juveniles I try to teach how to jab are with me on an almost daily basis. And little by little, as they begin to believe in you, their inner lives and struggles begin to seep out.

Once when I jabbed Reverend George Foreman about being a minister teaching the art of violence, he countered, “In the boxing gym kids got the kind of love they never received at home and this made them less angry, less violent individuals.”
In the therapy office of the boxing gym, some kids can find a trainer who is consistently there for them; not necessarily with penetrating insights into the depths of their souls but with a hand on a shoulder and some words of encouragement as simple as “I am proud of you. You haven’t missed a training session in a month and I can see the improvement in your combinations.”

One day, on a visit with Mike Tyson we were going through some photos of him and his step-father, Cus D’Amato. It only took a few black and whites before Mike’s waterworks were gushing. Cus was the guy who was always there for the teen phenomenon with the long rap sheet. Before teaming up with D’Amato, Mike had never trusted an adult, but Cus would not let him go and eventually Mike opened the door and put all his trust in the old man. As Mike put it, “I would have done anything for Cus… anything.” Cus had earned the basic trust that the future Hall of Famer never received in the helter-skelter-unpredictable environment of his so-called childhood.

Pills aside, it is relationships that heal and they won’t develop without the trust that is impossible to establish in Zoom sessions or a thirty minute once every three-week appointment.

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