Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 2 (September 2019)

Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

David Zarnett, Ph.D.
Director, Research & Strategy

(To download a pdf version of this article, click here.)

Life often throws us challenges and obstacles that can feel insurmountable. This can lead us to think we have no power to change things.  The result is inaction and continued suffering.  

One way to overcome feeling powerless is to keep an eye out for positive role models. The people we admire and whose behaviour we’d like to emulate. According to social learning theory, a lot of our behaviour is learned from observing the actions of others. Positive role models, such as parents, teachers, bosses, peers, or even strangers, can teach us moral behaviour and inspire us to behave in more ethical and productive ways.

In today’s world a lot of attention is given to people with highly questionable behaviour. It seems that negative role models are more common than positive ones. Our tendency to focus on the negative behaviour of others can threaten our sense of wellbeing. 

However, if we look closely, we can find many individuals who can provide us with some ethical direction and motivation.  Looking out for these sources of guidance can help us muster the courage we need to tackle our own problems. Cultivating this courage is especially important when we start to feel as if our own circumstances are overwhelming. Having an example to follow can be very helpful.  

Over the summer, I spent some time reading Leon Uris’ QBVII, a book published in 1970.  It got me thinking about courage and heroism under extremely challenging situations.  

QBVII is about a court case between a Polish-British doctor (Adam Kelno) and an American writer (Abraham Cady).  During the Second World War, Kelno was captured by the Nazis in Poland and was taken to Jadwiga, an extermination camp.  There, Kelno served as one of the camp’s doctors. After the war, Kelno made his way to Britain, served overseas in Borneo (then a British colony, today part of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), earned a knighthood for his work, and returned to London to continue practicing as a doctor.  Just as Kelno appears to have his life back on track, he receives word that Cady has published a book stating that while at Jadwiga, Kelno worked with the Nazis to conduct brutal experiments on Jewish inmates. Kelno sues Cady for libel, and the two go to court.

In court, Kelno defends himself saying not only was he not complicit in the Nazi experiments but that his work saved lives and met the highest of medical standards, even under very difficult conditions. Any wrongdoing he committed, he and lawyers argued, were because of the severe duress he was under. If he didn’t obey orders, the Nazis would send him to the gas chambers.  

The merits of Kelno’s defense depended on the accuracy of his accounts of his behaviour and the larger question of what we can reasonably expect of someone living under horribly repressive conditions.  In his closing statement, Kelno’s lawyer emphasizes this point:  

We keep returning to a thought of how we in England can really re-create in our minds the nightmare of Jadwiga Concentration Camp. We heard some of the horror, but can we really relate to it? Can we really understand how this would affect the mind of an ordinary man….you or I? How would we have stood up in Jadwiga?

How we answer this question depends in part on the extent to which we believe that our environment determines our behaviour. If we see our environment as posing obstacles that we can’t overcome, then we may be doomed to behave in ways that are unethical and damaging to our mental health.  

But if we believe that we have some power, some ability to make a choice, even in the face of significant challenges, then new possibilities open up.  

During the trial, Cady’s lawyer argued that Kelno had a choice about whether to follow the Nazi orders or resist.  How did they know? They pointed out that other doctors at Jadwiga refused to take part in the Nazi experiments, risking their own lives in the process.  If these doctors disobeyed Nazi orders, why didn’t Kelno? As Cady’s lawyer put it:

I agree that Jadwiga Concentration Camp was as awful as things had ever come to. Yet, members of the jury, the inhumanity of man to man is as old as man itself. Just because one is in Jadwiga or anyplace else where people are inhumane, that does not give him leave to discard his morality, his religion, his philosophy, or all of those things that make him a decent member of the human race.

It’s a thought provoking statement. It makes me think about those individuals who have stepped up in one way or another to promote change in their own lives and for others when so much stood in their way.  

Overcoming great challenges: childhood difficulties, economic collapse and family catastrophe

Think about Glenn Loury, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a working class neighbourhood in the south side of Chicago, an area described as one of the most violent in the US.  In fact, through the 1960s, when Loury was a teenager, the number of homicides in the city nearly doubled. Loury describes his childhood environment as quite challenging. In a recent interview, he said: “there was a lot of stuff going on that I don’t know that anyone could really credit as productive or helpful to the wellbeing of the micro-society of which I was a part.” Despite all of this, Loury managed to excel at school and became the first African-American Professor of Economics to receive tenure at Harvard.

Loury continued to experience life challenges, including a public scandal, professional and marital difficulties, and a drug addiction.   As he describes it:

“I found myself in a hole, with drug addiction, cocaine, and it almost destroyed my life and I had to go into rehab. I lost about a year in halfway houses, you know, in-patient rehab, and my marriage barely held together”.

Despite all of this, he persevered and worked to get his life back on track. Today, he is a prominent economics professor at Brown University and a popular public intellectual. 

Or think about Michaylee White. In 2008, the collapse of the US housing market and the ensuing financial crisis turned her family’s life upside down.  Rather than diving into the depths of despair, she had the courage to adopt a different perspective.  She described this perspective in an interview with the CBC:

It’s curious to think that the economy was the thing that caused my family to lose so much control.  We lost three jobs and one house. I made six moves and attended three high schools, all in just two years.  And still, all that my family had been through, the hardest thing of all was losing the time together and our connection to each other.  Everyday I remind myself that only I am capable of removing the sadness that life brings and that I need to find happiness rather than waiting around for it.  

Or think about Deborah and David Cooper, who lost their son Eli to suicide in 2010.  After years of therapy and hard work, they channeled their energy towards promoting positive change for others. They are working to establish Eli’s Place – Canada’s first residential treatment centre for those struggling with mental illness. In a recent interview on the State Of Mind Podcast with Mike Stroh, Deborah described their path forward in the following way:  

Almost a year after his first suicide attempt, [Eli] did take his own life on July 2nd, 2010.  And that changed our lives forever and sent us on a new journey…I know it’s a story of such profound loss and why do people want to listen. We at this point really see it as a story of recovery and hope, and this is what we want to transmit because through all the loss and the grief, and that’s a whole journey on its own, we have found a way to memorialize Eli by trying to do something to make things better for others.  

In addition to those who experience significant trauma in their lives and work through it, there are also those who courageously tackle major social problems. 

Community heroes: teaching youth mindfulness and tackling climate change

The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Ali and Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez are another example. After graduating from the University of Maryland, they returned home to find their neighbourhood in disarray.  As they describe it:

What these kids experience…it’s like a war zone out there.  The environment in general with crime, drugs and just violence, it’s like all these kids are experiencing PTSD.   This is the war zone.  It’s not like they are going somewhere to war then coming back here and they feel like that. They’re in the midst of it. They are living in it.  

Instead of moving to a different city or giving up hope, they decided to take action and formed a non-profit to teach youth yoga and meditation to better themselves and contribute to their community.  Their mission is to empower individuals to take more control over their lives and to “teach teachers” to facilitate transformative change in their community and beyond.    

Think about the people trying to tackle climate change. There is no shortage of news that bombards us with a sense of despair and hopelessness.  In her recent book, Shut it Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance, Lisa Fithian describes the courage that she and others have had in protesting human rights abuse and environmental degradation around the world, while facing threats of imprisonment and violence.  What is notable about her story is how she thinks about the societal problems that can cause so many of us to turn away. In a recent interview, Fithian describes her perspective in the following way:

We can’t let that pain destabilize us. So, again, what I’ve been learning is that when we are feeling afraid, when we are feeling we can’t take it anymore, the most important thing to do is actually reach in and to take action and to do something, because that’s where we begin to get a sense of our power, that we can make a difference. And if history has shown us anything, it’s like, unless we actually organize, we aren’t going to make changes.

What qualities do these people possess?

What is particularly fascinating and inspirational about these individuals is that they defy something that psychology professor Paul Slovic and his colleagues refer to as “psychic numbing” – the cognitive phenomenon of turning away from severe problems that appear to be too big or complex to deal with, resulting in inaction. Rather than allowing a problem to numb them, these individuals engaged with it head-on and are better off for doing so.

These individuals, even the fictitious doctors in Jadwiga refusing Nazi orders, can offer us much inspiration. They serve as a sharp reminder that we can choose to not let our difficult circumstances get in the way of doing what needs to be done to help ourselves and to make positive contributions to the lives of others.

We may live in difficult times, but with some effort we can find a few powerful positive role models that can help us find the path forward.   

Thanks for reading and see you again in two weeks.  

About the Author: David Zarnett is the Undergraduate Advisor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, from where he received a Ph.D in 2017.  His work supports students as they address challenges in school and as they prepare for life after graduation.  Through his work on campus, including as a lecturer and teaching assistant, he has witnessed a deteriorating mental health situation. He is passionate about providing students with the support and guidance they need to reach their potential.  Beyond his work at the University of Toronto, he is also the Executive Director of Every Kid Counts, an advocacy organization that is campaigning to strengthen special education policy in Ontario.  

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Why Understanding Your Environment Matters to Your Mental Health

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 1 (September 2019)

Why Understanding Your Environment Matters to Your Mental Health
David Zarnett, Ph.D.
Director, Research & Strategy

Navigating the Loss of a Child

Bridge Over the River Why

In this episode, I talk with David & Deborah Cooper. Authors of “Bridge Over the River Why” about their experience losing their son Eli to suicide and the birth of Eli’s Place (, which will be Canada’s first long term rural residential treatment centre for emerging adults with mental illness – and learn about the benefits of applying the recovery model in treatment. They are courageous and poignant with their intimate understanding of their journey. You can find their book here – Bridge Over the River Why ( Please let us know what you think!! Peace

Excerpts from the Book & Interview


We believe that our son did not want to die; he just could not go on living. Choosing to end his unbearable pain was his last measure of control. If love could have saved him, our son would be alive today.


In this guide, we offer hope and healing to parents where none may have seemed possible before. We have learned much in these past few years, and have come far on our journey to create a blessing from the darkness of watching a child suffer, and experiencing tragic loss and infinite grief. A child’s death is an instant in time that changes the course of every parent’s life forever. It is the beginning of endlessly questioning why? questions that may never be answered. In these pages, we have tried to bring a modicum of comfort, awareness and a compassionate presence to guide you. We hope to assist you to find courage and resilience within yourself as you cross the The Bridge Over the River Why.

We prayed for strength, understanding, and connection once again. The rhythms of intimacy seem to be absent, and we learned a very hard lesson that the bitter and the sweet each have their seasons. A life has come and gone and nature has not paused a second for it. The world has carried on without us; is this not truly inexplicable?


We go from being a parent to being a bereaved parent, and even that doesn’t accurately describe the depth of our loss. One might use the word surviving parents, which alludes to the trauma. We have not yet found a label to adequately describe the identity of the parents in our society that have lost a child to suicide. Perhaps this inexplicable loss defies description. When our child dies, how do we heal the suffering? How do we balance the grief when death violates nature and the order of the universe? How do we know how to mourn? How do we get our control back?


We found that families who have not had help to understand and make sense of the death are far more likely to get stuck in repetitive talking about the death without resolution. Going over the events in detail allows family members to hear each other’s perspectives, to appreciate that everyone is in pain, and to realize that they may all be at different stages in their grief, with each attributing a different meaning to what has happened.


Eventually we realized that a death by suicide is a result of factors too numerous to count. We thought we needed all the answers in order to cope with our new reality, but in truth we learned the answers were not forthcoming.


It is important to ask why and to consider why, because it is part of the grieving process. However, one finally exhausts all possibilities of discovering the why. A maze has an entrance and an exit, with a complex path between the two, a place where you are challenged to wander to find your way out. Mazes test the navigation and directional capabilities of individuals. In our case, our ‘maze of why’ had an entrance but no exit. Ultimately it was a fruitless search. Sometimes we think that staying in the question of ‘why’ while seeking answers may help us to feel better. However, the real challenge for us was to allow ourselves to actually feel all those emotions that engulfed us. The intensity may change but the hard thing for both of us was to have the courage to feel our feelings, and begin to move toward awareness and healing.


It took a very long time until we came to the realization that we could not have prevented his death.


Eventually, we learned to accept the journey even when we didn’t understand it. We trusted in something that was bigger than ourselves, larger than our own vision, and capable beyond our own hands, which led us toward some semblance of peace. When we let go of our need to know why, our struggle lessened and the healing began.


We learned very early that if we wanted to keep our friends and family, we needed to teach them what we needed. Suicide is unique among losses, and friends and family usually do not have the life experience or the language of loss needed to comprehend the experience. Most do not know how to respond, so they simply don’t, while some may respond inappropriately. Emotional support is very subjective. What feels supportive to one individual may not feel supportive to the next. We found the most effective way to get what we needed was to ask for it.


We will always appreciate a close friend who sat with us shortly after Eli’s death and said, “I care for you so much, but I don’t know what to say. I want to acknowledge your pain and be able to talk to you. How can I help?” We answered, “Don’t be afraid to talk about our loss and use Eli’s name whenever you are with us.” The greatest comfort is an accepting and compassionate presence, someone to nourish your soul.


Give your grief meaning by talking about your feelings. Grief will never end because love will never end. We cannot heal what we cannot feel; talk about your child often, and use his or her name. When you acknowledge your feelings, you are able to begin to move forward. Honour your child’s life, family and yourself by making a commitment to work on your own grief, and thereby move towards healing and growth. Do not ‘should’ yourself or let anyone else ‘should’ you. In fact, consider removing the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary.


Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of our loss. Anger has no limits and can extend to family, friends, doctors and yourself. For some, anger can extend to your child, God—in fact at life itself. We learned that anger is an emotional connection from us to our child, as we attempted to hold on and not let go. Anger is a normal part of grief—a bridge of energy across the river of loss. It is known that, in mourning, people experience anger in varying degrees of length and intensity. Anger tells us that we are alive and we love someone very much. We are angry because our child is dead. We found anger was actually progress; it allowed us to feel the profound emotions of grief needed in order to heal. Anger tends to come and go before it is finally resolved. Yes, anger can be resolved. Rather than being held in the grip of prolonged anger, you can choose to deal with this powerful emotion in order to eventually be released from its control. If you hold on to anger for an extended period of time, it can become a stumbling block in your recovery. Even though it is normal to feel anger, it is important to deal with it purposefully and with awareness; resist feeding it with negative thoughts.


Your friends and family may believe that the last thing a bereaved parent would want to talk about is the death of their child. The reverse is almost always true. We needed to talk about the death of our son. Grieving parents need to talk about their tragic loss, to express their sadness, to release their anger, to express their guilt, and have others understand and hear the crying of their soul. They need to confront the reality of what happened to them. Your loss is always right under the surface of other emotions, even moments of happiness. Others need to know that you would rather be moved to tears as they speak your child’s name while remembering them, than be shielded from the pain and live in denial. We


Sometimes the best way for friends and family to respond is to simply express their sympathy and be free to say that they do not know what to say. Statements such as “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I too, am sad and I wish I could do more” or “We are praying for you and thinking of you,” are just fine. They are truthful, honest, and direct.

Moving Mountains

“I have had to join the club that I cannot ever leave, but this club is full of the most shining souls I have ever known. The survivors of suicide I have met over the course of a decade have become instrumental in re-shaping my new life; they are the life changers, the game changers, relentless warriors who re-define the word ‘brave’. Every day survivors move mountains in honour of their loved ones who have gone too soon. They have started movements, changed laws, and spearheaded crusades of tireless activism. They have learned to alchemize their grief into a force to be reckoned with. They have turned tragedy into transformation and loss into legacy.” Sandi Roher, Suicide loss survivor