Struck By Living

Coping with depression and living life to the fullest.

The Life Lessons of a SMART Class

Center for BrainHealth SMART class reveals key insights on military suicide


“Men fear the loss of identity more than they fear death.” Kirk McJukin reminded me of a buff King Arthur, carved by life’s challenges but deeper and wiser for the experience. In all my research and writing about suicide, I don’t think I’ve heard the enigma of suicide expressed more simply or eloquently. Strange thing was, Kirk wasn’t even discussing suicide. We were students in a SMART class at the Center for BrainHealth, applying the concept of Integrated Reasoning. We’d read a few paragraphs of chapter 21 from Stephen Pressfield’s The War Ethos. Kirk’s words, strategically applied, fired in my brain in a way neither of us expected.

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Photo of Dr. Sandi Chapman
Dr. Sandi Chapman of the Center for BrainHealth
 I didn’t plan to find deep thinkers on my first day of SMART class. I’d registered for the class out of curiosity and an inability to remember names. A fan of the Center of BrainHealth’s “The Brain: An Owner’s Guide Lecture Series” for years, I wanted to see what Chief Director Dr. Sandi Chapman  had cooked up. Sandi has recently published a book titled: Make Your Brain Smarter, around which the course is structured. I signed up for the class, hoping my brain could become smarter too.

When I entered the class on the first day, I felt like a Lilliputian in the Land of Giants. Of the 10-person class, several were former football players and veterans. These dudes were big. The only other female student was, like me, in the upper-middle of her life. She is an artist. I’m a writer. The class presented a stark contrast from my usual social group of thespians, running buddies, mental health professionals, board sitters or parents from my kids’ sports teams.

The Rings of 22Kill
The Rings of 22Kill Volunteers
Despite my childhood as a military brat, my main contact with the armed forces these days is through the newspaper. I read about veterans, often wondering what we could do to deter the high suicide rate. In my SMART class, several men in the class wore a black ring. The ring serves as a reminder of the military death toll from suicide, growing at a rate of 22 persons a day. Most of these men worked actively with veterans, helping them heal in novel ways.

Jennifer Zientz class (not the one I attended)
Jennifer Zientz leads a session
Our SMART class was an eclectic bunch, and on every Tuesday in February, we learned the process of Smart Mental Edge Training (SMART). Our course instructor, Jennifer Zientz, taught us the power of 0-1-2.

O – Let your brain rest. Some find best results with 5 five-minute rest periods during the day.

1 – Focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a false god (my words not hers).

2 – Identify two high-priority, thought-intensive tasks for your day and do these first. 

 Jennifer called these high-level tasks “elephants.” Address the elephants first. The less important tasks or “rabbits” are a second priority.

The to do list
My TO DO list
She gave us a clever preprinted TO DO list we could use, with elephant and rabbit icons down the left side. 

Later in the class, we learned the process for Integrated Reasoning, where some profound thoughts bubbled to the surface. Every person took an article. We zoomed in on details and zoomed out for universal meaning. We then integrated the information into our own lives. The idea behind SMART is this: if you are to read or learn something, focus on applied meaning, otherwise facts clutter the brain. Without a purpose, details will find their exit as quickly as they made their entrance. 

SMART highlights the challenge and importance of stripping out unimportant information. If we try to stuff all the stuff in our brains, we will quickly have cerebral overload. As one who is often brain-overloaded, this class has been a turning point. I’ve made a mission statement for my work, and have changed how I approach meetings and my day. The payback for change, not completely assessed, appears as broad as the shoulders of my SMART classmates.

However, for me, the most important take away from SMART class wasn’t on the agenda. Talking to these veterans gave me an insight on the military that’s hard to appreciate in civilian life. These men spoke so fondly about the camaraderie of a military unit, the community, and the family-like bond.

Andy Nguyen, Aaron Throckmorton, Mark Roy display their 22 Kill rings
Andy Nguyen, Aaron Throckmorton, Mark Roy display their rings
When veterans return home, that community disappears, leaving them a stranger amongst strangers. 

Kirk’s comment about identity highlighted for me the biggest irony for those who feel a loss of self and stumble into the abyss of suicidal thought. A community is crucial for individual identity. For me, that was the bonus lesson of SMART. As ingrained as the macho image of the rugged individualist might be, independence can only emerge from dependence. In the real world, the Marlboro Man doesn’t stand a chance. We need each other. Not just to survive, but thrive.

If you are interested in more information about SMART or the Center for BrainHealth, check out this link: Sandi Chapman also has a blog on Psychology Today:


For more information about Julie K Hersh, check out her website

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.


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