Grit and Gratitude: Coping with Mental Illness- A Success Story at Eastern Michigan University

When was the last time you missed a meal because you didn’t have food to eat?

Pause and reflect for a moment on what that was like if it happened to you, or imagine what it would be like if it never happened to you.

What are some words that describe that experience?

For the over 500,000 Americans who are homeless each day, every day living on the streets is a struggle: fear, anxiety, anger, shame, grief, sadness, humiliation and the threat of violence are just some of the daily experiences, not to mention the sheer physical toll it takes on one’s body.

On any given day in Michigan, there are over 8,000 homeless people, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.  Approximately 20% of these individuals also suffer from a mental illness, compared to approximately 6% of people diagnosed with a mental illness in the non-homeless population.

While the patchwork of social services are doing their best to help individuals who are homeless, they struggle with underfunding, bureaucratic red-tape and the sheer complexity of assisting individuals who are transient and sometimes refuse help due to their mental illness.

John Wilkerson is an inspiring exception.

From the Eastern Michigan University Today Article by Jeff Samoray:

He’d been suffering from crippling depression, anxiety and ADHD. The undertreated disorders turned his world upside down: his marriage crumbled, he lost his job and he became homeless.

Wilkerson lived with friends and in shelters. With no job or permanent residence for several years, he saw no light from what seemed to be the bottom of a deep well.

Today, light has returned to Wilkerson’s life, thanks to help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and EMU’s Lt. Col. Charles S. Kettles Military and Veteran Services Resource Center. Wilkerson is on track to receiving a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Eastern. The former U.S. Marine is also helping people overcome similar obstacles he faced.

Mr. Wilkerson demonstrates the habit of grit, the ability to persevere or push through physical and emotional discomfort and adversity and maintain focus on your goal. According to acclaimed University of Pennsylvania researcher, Angela Duckworth, grit is one of the strongest predictors for whether a student will graduate from high school and complete other goals. Grit, like other skills or habits, can be learned and it is a developmental process that requires coaching, effort, and the willingness to change course when a given plan is not working. Grit, rarely occurs in a vacuum, and people still need resources, support and education to reach their goals.

It is not a “no ex-excuses” mentality, but a willingness to make mistakes, correct them, and move forward.  Dr. Duckworth told Edsurge:

“And it is therefore the responsibility of the classroom teacher or school or community to make sure that kids understand that when they don’t want to do something that’s hard, when they don’t want to do something that will maybe not work out, and when they don’t want to quit things, that the first and most important thing is start from understanding and accepting that that is part of the struggle.”


This is the skill that Mr. Wilkerson demonstrated throughout his life-graduating from high school, going to the marines, getting a job, living with mental illness and now returning to school for a master’s degree.

“My experiences give me a unique perspective,” Wilkerson says. “I have a lot of empathy and think I can give people hope. There’s too much stigma around mental health issues. It’s possible to get out of what seems like a hopeless situation and have a productive life.”

Mr. Wilkerson would be the first to admit that while he had grit, he did not accomplish so much alone-he had the support of other veterans, other students, and the resources through a dedicated support center at Eastern Michigan University.

For his new life, going from  homeless veteran to graduate student dedicated to helping others- we must all surely be grateful.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How many people in Michigan are homeless on any given day?
  2. Was the website used to gather that information, a reliable source?
  3. What mental illness did Mr. Wilkerson experience?
  4. What is “grit?”
  5. How did Mr. Wilkerson demonstrate grit?
  6. How does the line from John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself…” apply to Mr. Wilkerson’s experience.
  7. Who is one of the leading researchers on grit?
  8. Mr. Wilkerson wants to help alleviate the “stigma” of mental illness-what does “stigma mean?”
  9. Why is gratitude an important theme in this story?
  10. How have you demonstrated both grit and gratitude in your own life?


For the EMU Today article by Jeff Samoray, please click here.

For great resources on learning about grit, please click here. 

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