Fridtjof Nansen’s Legacy: Shaping World Mental Health Perspectives Today

Kirsten Colquhoun

Head of Guidance, Robert Gordon's College

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Around the world, the 10th of October is observed as Mental Health Day. It is a day dedicated to nurturing our mental wellbeing, fostering compassion, and pledging our ambition to make the world a better place, through promoting positive Health for All.

October 10th is also the birthday of the remarkable Fridtjof Nansen, born in Norway in 1861. He left a tremendous legacy as a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, and humanitarian. He was driven above all by a deep ambition and sense of duty to enhance the overall happiness of all humanity. 

While many people may not be immediately familiar with Fridtjof Nansen, his actions and their impacts, can be traced in current concerns and focus on Wellbeing and Health. On World Mental Health Day, Nansen’s particular humanitarian efforts are inspirational to us all regarding the vital part we each play to enrich our own lives, deepen our empathy, expand our understanding and broaden our knowledge, whilst increasing our compassion to those around us.

One of Nansen’s most renowned achievements was his visionary work on behalf of refugees. In the aftermath of World War I, worn-torn Europe faced the insurmountable task of rebuilding itself. Not least in repatriating 450,000 former prisoners of war who had been “torn from their roots” and were in great need of humanitarian support at all levels.  

From 1920 to 1930, he was the Inaugural High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations; his passion for natural sciences, discovery and adventure was put on hold. During his tenure, he assisted hundreds of thousands of refugees in resettling either in their homelands or in the lands where they sought refuge. 

Nansen recognised the vital importance of needs which extend beyond the basics of food and water. He recognised and understood and believed in the importance of inclusion, community, belonging, employment and the rights to ambition for everyone.  Nansen’s persistence, determination and insight paved the way for many to obtain legal residency and employment so they could rebuild their lives and begin to gain a level of security. 

Although he rarely voiced his personal difficulties, his professional journey was frequently distressing as he observed humanity’s darkest traits while endeavouring to enhance them. Frequently, when confronted with ubiquitous frustrating bureaucratic obstacles, discrimination, administrative complexities, crises, and hesitance from others, Nansen’s personal resilience was strained and tested to its limit many times.

Nansen’s ambitions came at a cost to his personal endeavours. Previously, he had attempted to become the first person to cross the Greenland ice sheet and later, had led an expedition to the North Pole. Nansen’s dream to revisit these voyages were never realised as he prioritised his humanitarian work over these personal ambitions.   

Fridtjof Nansen passed away in 1930. In his honour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established the Nansen Refugee Award, which serves as a testament to his enduring impact on the world of humanitarianism.

On World Mental Health Day, reflecting on Nansen’s prescience, his insight and his compassion can help steer our own approaches to the needs of our community. Schools are naturally places where ambition is encouraged and celebrated. Driven by a deep sense of ambition and duty, Nansen is a worthy role model to us all. He demonstrated the power of compassion and the difference it can make in the lives of countless individuals. We can learn from him that we should actively seek ways to help those in need and promote the wellbeing of everyone in our school communities through kindness and empathy. Your own ambition is a personal quality, but it can have a deeply significant and constructive impact on others in your community when steered toward the needs of others. 

A good education has the power to change lives and through schools we have the power to achieve a more equitable, healthy society.  Nansen shows us that ambition, when channelled toward noble and selfless goals, can be a force for positive change. We should aspire to use our talents and ambitions to also contribute to the betterment of society.

On World Mental Health Day we should consider our own motivations in education. Our deeper sense of duty and service to our pupils, colleagues and communities can produce important and long-lasting reverberations. Despite the pressure from Inspections, league tables, deadlines, OFSTED and countless other demands on our time, we must remember the bigger picture of what we do. We should not be driven by personal gain or power but by a desire to improve the human experiences of those around us. 

In preparing our young people for the future we must ensure our curriculum, extra/co/super, provides the space and time for pupils to explore their own courage and resilience within the safety of school communities. As a polar explorer, Nansen faced extreme challenges and dangers. He did not succeed in either of his two main expeditions. He worked to gain the skills and abilities to bounce back from this adversity. Acknowledging and explicitly talking about disappointment is important. Knowing that life rarely goes to plan is an important lesson in today’s world where social media often makes the opposite appear to be true.

Presenting positive role models to our pupils who are not perfect, filtered, or followed by millions of people on social media can help pupils draw hope from their own adversities and show that self belief, hard work and perseverance are key attributes to success and happiness.

World Mental Health Day is one day in our year. Nansen was one man in this world and his impact has been and continues to be, profound to many.  What will your school do on October 10 2023 to create a valuable, long lasting beneficial impact on your school community? 


10 October 2023