Guru Purnima

For all the teachers out there, take note. Today is Guru Purnima in India, Nepal, and other countries where Buddhism and Jainism are infused in the fabric of society. It is a day devoted to celebrating and honoring our teachers, our mentors, our gurus.

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Observed on the day of the full moon (Purnima) in the Hindu month of Ashadha, what can this holiday devoted to teachers teach us about mental health?


Guru. This ancient word is made up of the Sanskrit root words: gu and ru. Gu means darkness or ignorance and Ru means remover of darkness. Thus, the Guru is the enlightened teacher who helps remove darkness and ignorance. Some of us are “teachers” in the classroom. All of us have the potential to be teachers in life. In fact, in the face of trauma and adversity, children who report having one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult are much more likely to develop skills to thrive and grow. Such teachers in our lives can be called our gurus. Without them, when children don’t have such relationships growing up, they are at increased risk for a wide variety of mental health problems.


Mental illness and educational achievement. More than half of all lifetime mental health disorders start before we reach adulthood. Mental disorders interfere with education achievement and are significantly associated with school dropout. Unresolved mental health conditions interfere with completion of primary school graduation, high school graduation, college entry, and college graduation – with the proportion of school terminations attributable to mental disorders being largest for high school graduation. Given this developmental reality, and given the amount of time children spend at school, teachers are on the frontlines when it comes to mental health.


Required Curriculum. Come September, we will see some progress in terms of integrating mental health curricula into our schools in the United States. New York and Virginia are leading the charge. They are the first two states in the US to require schools to provide mental health education. In Virginia, the focus will be on high school students. In New York, elementary, middle, and high school curriculum will include mental health. Long overdue, urgently needed, we can only hope these are the first steps along the way to enhanced integration of mental health education in our schools.


Relationship is key. We are grateful to teachers for what they teach us, but it is actually the relationship between teacher and student that most strongly predicts positive and lasting difference for students. The same is true in psychotherapy. A strong, positive relationship between the therapist and the client is one of the strongest predictors of mental health benefit of therapy. It matters that the teacher is well versed in the instructional content. It is essential that the therapist is well skilled in appropriate, evidence-based therapies – but the teacher and therapist will never achieve the status of guru without forging enlightened and constructive relationships with their students and clients.


Longest Lunar Eclipse of the Century. Guru Purnima is the celebration of our teachers/mentors/gurus and the enlightenment they bring into our lives. So, what does it mean that tonight the Sun, Earth, and Moon will align for the longest lunar eclipse of the century? The total phase of the eclipse – called the totality – will span 1 hour 42 minutes and 57 seconds. And eclipse is defined by the fact that the light of the sun is blocked by the earth so the moon looks dark. But beyond the darkness, tonight the moon will also turn red as the sunlight filters through Earth’s atmosphere onto the moon’s surface. Perhaps a poetic takeaway is the reminder that light is always there, light bends, light finds its way around obstacles, and moving from darkness to light is wondrous, indeed.

On this auspicious crisscrossing of Guru Purnima and the longest lunar eclipse of the century, I thank the gurus in my life who have brought light to my world.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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