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4 Powerful Mental Health Takeaways from the Netflix Docuseries 'Cheer'

We assume cheerleaders are the epitome of bubbly happiness — it’s literally their job on the football field sidelines. They’re supposed to bring out the spirit within you, encouraging you to root for the team to help bring them to victory. 

As the sport evolves, they’re also becoming known for being extreme athletes who push their bodies into stunts and positions a layperson might never recover from. Few people can do what they do, tumbling across the mat at break-neck speeds or tossing another person so far into the air that everyone watching will gasp in surprise.

Netflix’s newest docuseries, “Cheer,” shows us what it takes to be a cheerleader. Pompoms are a thing of the past as the work behind the unbelievable stunts and routines is brought to center stage. Set in a small town in Texas known for its fruitcakes, the docuseries sets out to tell the story of an award-winning cheerleading team that happens to be from the middle of nowhere. By the end of the series, you’ll realize you just watched a story about childhood trauma, adversity and what can happen when people believe in you.

Here are four powerful takeaways about mental health from”Cheer.”

1. Childhood trauma destroys.

The series starts by describing the history of the cheerleading program at Navarro College. We see the fire and determination that drives their coach, Monica Aldama. Very quietly, before you even realize it, the darker backgrounds of a few of the cheerleaders are revealed. Bubbly young adults who were grinning ear-to-ear only a few frames before are now solemn and withdrawn, facing inner demons the viewers don’t quite understand just yet.

Slowly as their stories are told and other layers are uncovered, you see the destruction that childhood trauma had in some of their lives, sometimes making it hard for them to socialize or to truly trust other people. “Cheer” shows the wall trauma survivors often build around themselves for protection, and the pain many survivors live with every day, long after the actual traumatic events subside. The series isn’t afraid to show the effects that molestation, abandonment, loss of a parent, bullying and other issues have on these young adults. It gives a voice to trauma, which is a powerful way for other trauma survivors to know they are not alone. 

2. Don’t judge based on first impressions. 

We should know this by now. Everyone in this world should know not to judge people by what you see on the outside, yet we still do. For example, La’Darius Marshall is an outgoing cheerleader who isn’t afraid to be himself and add a little flair. Within the first few episodes, he appears to be overly hard on other cheerleaders and easily frustrated with their performances. “Cheer” paints him to be the villain, demanding too much from tiny crying girls as he looms over them before tossing up his hands and angrily marching away.

But then the storyline changes. As his story is tearfully told, you see that behind that anger is pain. Instead of someone who annoys you, he becomes someone you want to root for and encourage. Slowly “Cheer” starts to show another side of him, the side that is working hard to become the best person he can be despite his rocky past. It’s as if the producers and directors presented his story that way to remind us that snap judgments are wrong. We like to judge people based on the small amount we do see rather than truly getting to know someone and learn from their amazing stories. It’s a message that all mental health advocates stand for as we ourselves know there’s more to us than what our outsides portray.

3. Suicidal thoughts show no bias.

Looking at the cheerleaders on stage — their hair perfectly groomed, their smiles so white they gleam, their outfits covered in sparkly rhinestones — you would never associate them with the darkness of suicidal thoughts. Yet, in “Cheer,” we see how three different students struggled with suicidal thoughts and past attempts.

“Cheer” teaches us a lot about what suicidal thoughts can look like. They do not pick between genders, income, race, how beautiful someone is or how successful they might be seen as. Suicidal thoughts can come at the top of the pyramid, or the bottom. 

This docuseries might be hard for someone who is currently dealing with suicidal ideation to watch, but it’s great to share with others who might not understand. It takes off the blinders that people have put on when it comes to suicide and shares three stories from people who, at first glance, don’t “look” like they’ve overcome what they have. 

4. Having someone who believes in you can make a difference.

At first, Coach Monica appears to be harder than a diamond. Her glare alone could cut someone at the knees and make them beg for mercy. She pushes the cheerleaders until they cry and collapse on the mat. It seems at times like she lacks empathy or compassion. Yet as you watch, you’ll discover the biggest cheerleader on the team is Coach Monica. 

She seems to look for kids who are lost or broken, but secretly teaming with hidden talent, and shapes them through support and love. In “Cheer,” you’ll hear her talk about standing up to her pastor to protect her boys on the team. You’ll see her hardened face soften as she sits with a cheerleader who is struggling and empowers her to get legal help against an abuser. Coach Monica shows the cheerleaders how to set healthy boundaries and work hard. She’s not the person with the fake smile offering false help and concern, she’s the strong and silent person who stands behind them, not letting them fall.

Coach Monica is a solid example of how one person can help support and heal those who are fighting through pain, trauma, adversity and any other battle that seems too big to fight alone simply by believing in them and being true to their word. 

“Cheer” is receiving a large amount of press. The cast has appeared on “Ellen” and football player J.J. Watt even tweeted about the show. As the hype grows, so does the awareness behind mental health and adversity. Slowly buy surely, “Cheer” is helping break the stigma and bring light to the dark places so many in the mental health community fight each and every day.

“Cheer” isn’t afraid to showcase the battle that happens not only for the trophy, but also within people’s lives. It’s a prime example of why you can never assume what people portray on the outside matches their struggle inside. We all need to be cheerleaders for each other, regardless of our sex, race, gender, mental health diagnosis, income or physical attributes. In a world full of people waiting to tear each other down, be a Coach Monica for someone in your life.

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