Trying To Find the Words to Talk About My Role in Racism

There are not always words available to express the way that something feels. And sometimes, even when we try to use the words we know we can’t fully articulate the amount of emotion that needs to be attached to what is said. I’ve written this reflection several times. I’ve had friends read it. Still, it doesn’t fully capture what I want to say with the level of intensity that I want to say it. I feel inadequate to fully express what I’m trying to say, and for my inadequacy, I apologize.

I have very few words that can accurately express the emotions that I’ve been feeling over the last week and since the murder of George Floyd. I’ve been trying for days to put the right words together feeling like it’s an impossible task. At first, the hurt was for the world and how we can’t seem to get our shit together. The image of people protesting horrific injustices in pandemic masks and the violent videos on social media are something I can’t get out of my head. Then I began the grief of thinking about what the situation would have looked like if George was one of my friends. If that had been Desmond or Rodney or Sarah or anyone else who I deem as being family and whom I love like crazy – I would have lost my mind. Now, I have moved into a new grieving era. The one where I realize, upon further inspection, that maybe I haven’t always been the most awesome white friend.

In my mind I’ve advocated by being accepting and loving. I have tried to be what people call an anti-racist. I have asked questions and been thankful to have friends of color that would patiently explain things to me because I was admittedly stupid in my whiteness. Like admitting I was stupid excused all the questions I wasn’t asking. I’ve taught my children to appreciate others for exactly who they are regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, sexuality…that none of that matters because everyone has value. I realize now there is so much more to this than just accepting.

I have also been embarrassed at my lack of outright support. The things I knew I didn’t know and I was quietly, subconsciously accepting of my ignorance. I was incredibly proud of my son for going out and protesting and then immediately felt guilty that I didn’t do the same. Why didn’t I think of doing that? I struggled for days to say the right thing on social media and kept putting it off because I was fearful of offending the very people that I wanted to support. I understand how much of a coward that makes me seem. 

I have a brown daughter. I have watched racism touch our family. The intense anger that accompanies it is difficult to contain and difficult to put into words, and of course that doesn’t even begin to touch some of the experiences that others have had. When we adopted her all those years ago nobody prepared us for that. They said learn about her culture and teach her, but they never warned us about how truly hateful some people can be. We learned that on our own, but we didn’t know that because we had never experienced it. Because we are white.

And even those experiences didn’t push me to learn more. Probably because I was too comfortable in my whiteness. 

I want to say I’m sorry but I can’t imagine that matters much. A friend equated it to speaking with a grieving widow or mother. What do you say when you know nothing you say will make anything better but could potentially make it worse? I want to find the words but can’t. I’m speechless. I feel sad and dumb. Like I missed a mark that I conveniently didn’t know was there.

Mostly because I really believed my only job was to love my friends.

But I think now that I may not have been loving them in the right way. Loving them is maybe only 50% of what we are supposed to be doing. Advocating for them, teaching our children how to be better than we are, and calling out inequalities may be more of a start. I’m not exactly sure how to move forward, but I’m committed to figuring it out. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because I have friends of color who I couldn’t imagine not having in my life – those who enrich my life and make me a better person just for knowing them. Those who have shaped me into who I am. Those who I love with such conviction that I would gladly do anything to be better for them. Anything to be able to learn to love them in the right way. Because I would die inside if I ever knew I made them feel less than. In so many ways they are so much better of people than I could ever hope to be.

I’m committed being better. I’ll unlearn and relearn. 

Articles that say “this is how you teach it” are valuable, but to teach it we first need to be able to look at our own assumptions and biases. Two articles that were personally focused and that really resonated with me lately are How to Be a Better White Person (thanks Desmond Hasty) and EDITORIAL: What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege (thanks Jeff Kubiak). Another really fantastic resource I read was An Ongoing List of Ways to Join the Anti-Racist Fight which provides organizations, podcast, books and other resources to learn more. 

I’m sorry as a blog reader if this post seems all over the place. If it is, it’s an accurate representation of how I feel about the world right now. The best way I know how to reflect is through my writing. Thanks for allowing me to reflect with you.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

How Chronic Stress Impacts Our Physical & #MentalHealth (With Coping Strategies)

Stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. Stress isn’t inherently bad or negative, but when it becomes traumatic stress or overwhelming stress is when we encounter problems. Sustained overwhelming stress over a period of time can have a negative effect on the brain and body. In the brain, sustained stress will decrease dendrites in the hippocampus which are connected to memory. The brain can also experience dendritic retraction and synapse loss in the frontal cortex where our supercomputer is housed. These changes lead directly to attention loss and decision-making impairment. Sustained stress increases frontal motor connections and decreases hippocampus ones. Our brain is rewiring itself to fight off danger and run away or to collapse to make sure we don’t get too traumatized by remembering every possible moment should we get injured.

This worked well when we were hunters and gathers and needed to be aware of the dangers all around us. However, our brain doesn’t understand that we don’t always need that in today’s world. Stress is everywhere. These changes can undermine neuroplasticity and our ability for our brain to function properly. 

The body reacts to chronic stress in a similar way. Your nervous system can be thrown into a survival strategy (fight, flight/flee, freeze/collapse) which can increase your heartbeat which raises your blood pressure and prepare your body to run, hide, or fight. Because muscles can be taut from the preparation, injuries and joint pain are more likely from the tension.

Extra glucose production to provide a boost of energy can increase the chance for Type 2 Diabetes. “The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate” can also aggravate existing ulcers and cause a surge in acid production in your stomach (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018). The immune system, over time, begins to deteriorate, which not only leads to getting sick easier, but also lengthens the time to get better when we do get sick.

Our reproductive systems can be affected as well. Men may find that with chronic, sustained stress, their testosterone levels are affected, which can cause reproductive and desire issues, insomnia, and exhaustion. It can also cause emotional dysregulation including an increased risk of depression, reduced memory and concentration, and decreased motivation and self-confidence (Gotter, 2019). Women can also experience a loss of desire and their menstrual cycles may be affected, which can lead to reproductive issues. Chronic stress may exacerbate menopausal symptoms (Pietrangelo & Watson, 2018).

One of the issues I’ve dealt with for years is the fact that I don’t feel stressed until it hits me with brute force. That is a result of my childhood trauma and the fact that my body handles stress differently because my body is more accustomed to the feeling of it. I don’t get the feeling of an “adrenaline rush” as easily as others, and that’s why many times you’ll find people who thrill seek to be trauma victims. But that adrenaline also doesn’t allow me to feel stress in the same way, so I don’t have the ability to try to react to it, and yet it still causes the same turmoil inside my body. Just something for trauma victims to be cognizant of as you need to be more aware of your body and sensations that indicate high or sustained stress levels.

And you’re thinking, “Awesome. So now what?

The above information is to try to make it clear how truly dangerous sustained stress can be. Especially now, when we are dealing with so many changes and stressors, the chronic stress that people may be experiencing needs to be recognized and dealt before it becomes overwhelming.

Strategies to help fight chronic stress

Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are a way for your brain to focus on what’s going on in the here and now. It helps with spiraling out of control with thoughts of things that need to be done or future events that haven’t even happened yet. There are a few apps that are free for educators that aid in meditation. The most common ones are Headspace and Calm.

Self-care
Self-care is a way of taking proactive steps against stress. Although nothing will mitigate stress completely (it is the body’s warning system that something is changing), it does help the body be ready. I have written about the four types of self-care that I believe to be important and have a free educator self-care course available for more information.

Set healthy boundaries
Boundary setting helps us let others know what is an acceptable way to treat us both physically and emotionally. When it comes to stress, having established healthy boundaries can help empower you to make decisions based off from those boundaries and what you consider to be okay or not okay. For example, if you set a boundary for the amount of time you are willing to work so you have enough time for your family, having a healthy work boundary will help you say no to extra things that people may try to put on your plate. Boundaries are important to respect when it comes to other people as well. When they are clear and understood, it can reduce frustration between people and even improve efficiency when everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not.

Figure out how you process and communicate during stressful times
I have known for awhile that I process out loud. Knowing this information has helped me in multiple ways both personally and professionally. I am able to tell people, “I need to talk through this” and it helps me tremendously because I am able to get immediate feedback on my thinking. That also means that the people I gravitate toward during times of stress are my friends that also either process out loud (because they understand what I need) or the ones who are great listeners. During times of stress we often don’t have the energy capacity to look around and try to figure out what we need. That’s why knowing this information is vital to alleviate the stress of just knowing what to do when we’re feeling stressed.

Pandemic specific
Unfortunately, the longer that the pandemic lingers, the more likely chronic stress is an issue as we continue to adjust to the new normal. Here are a few tips to help with chronic stress during the pandemic:

  • Set work hours and take sick days (boundaries) – As a Technology Director it was a common misconception that I was available all the time because I was “always on” technology. It was not uncommon for me to get texts or emails late at night expecting to be answered immediately. In some cases, I’ve seen teaching morph into this during the pandemic as well. Even though you can be online doesn’t mean you should be. Set working hours. Set your email to automatically respond that you will return the following day during your work hours. Also, find out what your district’s current policy is for sick days and if you would take a sick day during the year, you should be able to take a sick day during virtual work as well.
  • In cases of overwhelm, start small. When I recently became overwhelmed I started struggling to get anything done. I started making myself a small list, and at one point it was four things: Start drinking water at noon (versus the massive amounts of coffee I was drinking), eat one healthy meal, go for a walk, and one work piece that I had to get done. Did I fall a little behind? Yep. But some things also started to fall off my plate that didn’t need to be done and I had taken them on anyway. Eventually, I was able to build myself back up to a normal work day and I had also managed to implement new habits.

Chronic stress isn’t something to be taken lightly, and the first step in fighting it is understand ourselves and how we think and feel. Developing a high emotional intelligence and true reflective skills are a huge part of preparing ourselves for times of inevitable stress. Sometimes that means taking care of it ourselves, but that can also mean going and seeking out professional help. Either way, to know our limits are going to be the first step in dealing with chronic stress.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

I am not a doctor. Claims in this blog have been researched and double checked by a doctor, but please check with your own physician if you have specific concerns.

Another Reason to Pay Attention to Our Mental Health: The Kids Are Watching

One of the areas on my body that I am the most self-conscious of are my knees. I hate the way they look. I know, it’s weird. I have always called them my “fat” knees and have avoided shorts for as long as I can remember. One day when my daughter was a pre-teen, she came out of her bedroom with shorts on and said, “Mom, do these shorts make my knees look fat?” I looked at her size 2 body and said, “What?” She said, “My knees, do they look fat?” I was shocked. It wasn’t like the quintessential does-my-butt-look-big question that she could have picked up anywhere. She was specifically asking about her knees. She had been paying attention. I complained about my knees. She started to worry about hers.

There are many reasons to pay attention to our mental health: to keep our cup filled so we can be healthy for others, to be healthy for ourselves, and live our best life. Taking care of our mental health will help us reach a higher level of happiness and have less stress. However, if those are not good enough reasons, we should be taking care of our mental health because our younger generation, whether it’s our own children or our students, are watching. We have the opportunity to raise generations of kids that are gratuitous, mindful, and mentally healthy. We can influence their mindset about self-care and emotional intelligence and forgiveness, understand how kindness impacts both their brains and bodies and also the brains and bodies of others. We have the ability to impact how they feel about mental health and how accepting they are of mental health issues by educating them and de-stigmatizing the topic. If you think that learning about mental health or mental health issues aren’t for you, then do it for them.

When my eldest son reached college he reached out to me at one point because the generalized anxiety that he had in high school had morphed into what seemed to be a test/performance anxiety that was impacting his grades. A successful student in high school without much effort, he had gone to college with little to no study habits and it had shown, which resulted in him fearing tests and his anxiety convincing him he just couldn’t do it. He called me and said, “Mom, my anxiety has been so bad and this is what has been happening. What can I do?” He did this because in our house I spoke about my anxiety in the context of having strategies for coping and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I modeled being open, and although having anxiety is nothing to be proud of, the work that goes into healing (which can be ongoing) and the ability to find strategies that work and allow you to thrive in spite of the anxiety IS something to be proud of.

We know as teachers that students watch everything we do. If you’re a parent, you have most certainly seen your kids mimic you at some point. Usually, when they do it’s at the most inopportune times and potentially something you would not want them mimicking – like the disgust they feel about their knees. However, we also have the opportunity to model for them the behaviors and attitudes that will support their own mental health and de-stigmatize mental health for younger generations.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Defining Mindfulness and How It Relates to Mental Health

When I was a Director of Innovation and Technology, I was speaking to one of our teachers about mental health when she said, “I want to try mindfulness with my kids. I really do. It really does interest me. The problem is that I feel like I keep being told to try it but nobody has really discussed what it is or what activities I could do with my kids in order to practice it correctly. I literally have no idea what to do.” As I work with different districts around the country, I hear similar complaints when it comes to just about anything mental health or mindfulness related…we want to, we just don’t know how. And part of the issue is that many times people don’t even really understand what mindfulness is.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is more than quieting your mind. It’s more than meditating. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He goes on to say, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (as cited in Defining Mindfulness, 2017). Perhaps my favorite part of that definition is the use of the term “non-judgmentally” as it’s not often that we allow ourselves to think or feel without judging if it’s right or wrong, painful or not. It is an exercise in acceptance of ourselves and who we are in that moment.

There are two major elements of mindfulness: awareness and attention. Awareness is a broader sense of what’s occurring in your inner and outer experiences. In other words, what is going on in your environment and what is going on inside your body including your thoughts and emotions.  Being aware of emotions and thoughts can have a dramatic impact on shifting them towards being more positive. Attention is channeling your focus onto a particular object or idea and then holding your attention in place for a specific period of time. Meditations are made to do this.

Practicing mindfulness calms down your sympathetic nervous system, so you are less likely to be thrown into a survival strategy (flight/flee, freeze/collapse, or fight). It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Studies have also found that it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and can lead to changes in body awareness and fear, making it less likely to react to triggers (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Also, because mindfulness keeps us in the moment, we are less likely to ruminate about failures, obsess about mistakes, fear the future, and become overwhelmed emotionally, therefore increasing our resilience and ability to cope with adversity.

Three Potential Ways to Practice Mindfulness:

Mindful Intentions

Setting an intention activates your internal guidance system. Setting an intention involves knowing who you want to be and then setting a goal to get there. An intention can be chosen depending on a situation or goal. For example, if communication with a partner is an issue, an intention might be, “I will communicate and listen to my partner without judgment.” Then, throughout the day running any communication through that lens based on the intention and asking, “Am I showing up in this way right now?” If the answer is no, then you know there needs to be a change. Many times we have goals that we are working towards. Setting an intention is like setting micro-goals to help you get there. It is action-orientated. Instead of wishing and hoping that things change or the future gets better, you’re making it happen. In the absence of setting intentions, people will continue to operate in the same way.

Gratitude Stones

Gratitude stones are simply a trigger, used in a positive way, to remind us to show gratitude. Gratitude stones are literally stones that you put into your pocket. Every time you reach into your pocket you will feel the stone, and the idea is to think of something you’re grateful for during that time. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to write it down. 

While I think that the use of an actual stone is intriguing (I imagine a super shiny and smooth one like I used to make in my rock tumbler as a kid), I rarely reach into my pockets. For me, putting a reminder on my lock screen so I see it whenever I pick up my phone is more effective. 

Arts Therapy

Coloring has its place in the practice of mindfulness. Find a picture that has an intricate pattern. A Mandala has a spiritual meaning, but it’s the intricacy that is useful for this technique. Any image similar to that will do. The process should take about 10-20 minutes and should be meditative; your focus should be drawn to what you are doing. I have personally seen this practice work with students nearly immediately. Many times I get asked about the instructional time lost to coloring…but they would lose more instructional time being removed for negative behaviors from the classroom, so it still seems like a solid strategy to me.

One of the reasons I love mindfulness so much is because of the focus on the present and withholding judgements. For myself, I have seen a noticeable difference in some of my anxiety and any lingering negativity when I spent more time in the moment and less time trying to anticipate what was going to happen next. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be difficult, but many times it does need to be defined for people if we expect them to utilize it for their own mental health and for that of their students.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Four of Many Reasons We Need To Talk About Mental Health Issues

A few years ago when I started openly discussing my own mental health issues, it was out of complete irritation that I felt like I needed to only talk about it in hushed tones to people that I really trusted. Dealing with my mental health issues made me feel less than, but the social stigma that accompanied them made me feel even worse, and at that time I didn’t need any help feeling bad about myself. I was tired of people dumbing down the impact of my anxiety to “just being nervous” or my depression to “just being sad” and implicitly or explicitly telling me to get over it. This was all difficult enough to deal with as a human, and when you added in the fact that I was an educator, it felt like it multiplied the necessity for secrecy by a million.

Or at least I thought. Until I started talking about it and others like me who were lurking in the shadows started whispering same here. That’s when I knew we needed to talk about it more, and here are five of the many, many reasons why.

You’re Not Alone
For me, one of the hallmarks of my mental health issues is to feel like I am all alone in whatever adversity I’m facing or in my feelings toward myself and others. That aloneness led me to believe that nobody understood me, and if I wasn’t careful I would wallow in that feeling. However, since making it my mission to talk about mental health issues more, I have said things like, “I have gone through my day with a smile on my face and gone back to my office at the end and cried because of the effort and sheer exhaustion I felt from acting normal when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and not get out” and I have had people say to me, “Oh my gosh. Me, too.” And inevitably someone says, “I always feel like I’m the only one who feels this way. Everyone else seems so happy.” But, they’re not alone. My counselor told me once that if I was in a mall and all the people with anxiety had yellow shirts and all the people with depression had red shirts and all the mentally healthy people had white, there would be almost no white shirts. And that doesn’t take into account the multitude of other mental health issues. It baffles me how we can be so quick to judge an issues that are so prevalent.

One of the reasons I believe that people can feel alone even if they know that others may have the same mental health issue is because the way that we cope with symptoms or the way that symptoms present themselves may be different. For example, although I get on with my days, some people may need to spend time in bed during severe depression episodes. I have anxiety which can manifest itself in many different ways. Sometimes it is combined with fear and makes me not want to move forward. Sometimes it is an all-out panic attack where I shake and feel like I can’t stand or I black out or I feel like I’m going to pass out and sometimes I do, and sometimes there could be a trigger that just happened or it could have been from the day before and then there could be five different coping mechanisms that I need to try before it subsides. And all of that can happen in five minutes or eight hours. After each episode, I need to be willing and able to reflect and process on what just made the anxiety happen so I can better deal with it in the future. Constant reflection and adjustment. And because of that, because it feels sometimes that it is fluid, it’s difficult to ever feel on the same page as anyone else. But when I talk about it, there is always at least one other person who understands.

Destigmatization
One of the reasons I felt like I couldn’t talk about it was because of the way that having a mental health issue is going to be viewed by some people, especially since I work in education. I once gave a session on educator mental health to a group of community members. Afterwards, one of the gentlemen came up to me and told me he was very uncomfortable with me using the term mental health issues. And herein lies the problem. We are ok with discussing diabetes or a broken limb or kidney stones, but when we are struggling with mental health issues it still feels uncomfortable to other people. But, this is exactly why it’s important to continue the discussion and educate people on what constitutes mental health and mental health issues and the impact it can have on a person’s day-to-day that nobody else may be able to see.

Misunderstandings and Misinformation
In the area of mental health and mental illness the field of study is relatively new in comparison to many other fields of medical study, and there are still people who remember when we would put mentally ill patients into mental hospitals to keep them away from others. Because the field is so young, relatively speaking, there are still a lot of questions as to how things work (or don’t) and why people feel the way they do. We don’t really know, for example, why some people live with depression and some people get so depressed they take their lives. We don’t know why a child in a home who is abused may go forward abusing their own children while their sibling breaks the cycle and does not. We can’t predict why something is a trauma for one person but the same situation is not for another. There are still so many unknowns for science, it’s difficult for the general public to have the information. In the case of mental health issues misinformation can fuel the stigma and can contribute to people with mental health issues to feel alone and ostracized. Keeping ourselves educated and then educating others with what we DO know is the number one way we are going to help destigmatize mental health issues and clear up potential misunderstandings.

Responsibility
We all have a responsibility to have a general idea of what to look for in someone who may be experiencing mental health issues. Even during the pandemic there have been multiple commercials reminding us to check on others and make sure that they are safe. I believe we can be stronger as a community when we recognize and support each other.

However, as a person with mental health issues I am also responsible for myself. I may not be the one who caused my trauma, but I am responsible for the healing. I am worthy of healing. And part of that is understanding my own issues and how I can cope and move forward. It is recognizing when I need to reach out to people I trust for help and not sit back and wallow in the fact that they may not be reaching out to me. It is my responsibility to get help when I recognize I need it. I have come far enough in my healing to accept that only I know how I truly feel and therefore I hold responsibility for asking for help.

When we discuss mental health issues and work to educate people and destigmatize it, it allows people dealing with the issues more capacity mentally to deal with healing instead of constantly wondering if they are going to be judged for whatever it is they’re going through. If we are willing to talk about it we may be willing to support it, and that may lead to someone choosing to reach out for the help they need.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here.

How Does Gratitude Improve Mental Health?

Gratitude is one of those feel-good concepts that people are just beginning to pay attention to as a way to be more positive and mindful, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the profound impact that gratitude can have on the brain and body.

Gratitude is the “quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Dictionary.com). It can be shown externally and internally. Externally, gratitude can be shown by appreciating other people and what they bring to your life and telling them. It can be shown for the material things you have and the opportunities that you work for or are given. Internally, gratitude can be felt for the qualities that you possess and who you are as a person or that you have a healthy body and mind.

It needs to be felt with authenticity and realness, and should not be practiced in relation to what someone else doesn’t have. For example, it’s important to think, “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in” instead of “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in because I know that some people don’t.” If you think the latter, you may not feel as thankful if you see someone else has something better than you. Maybe TWO houses or a bigger one. Gratitude is about you and being appreciative of the things in your life. Not about what someone else has or doesn’t have.

Gratitude and the Brain
Our brains will do whatever it is we tell them to do most. One of the brain’s goals is to be as efficient as possible. It wants to save energy. So it creates connections to the things we do most in order to do them more automatically. That’s why the first time we do something we may be slow at it, but the more we practice it becomes more “natural”. The more we practice, the more connections our brain is making, and the longer we do it, the stronger the connections are. However, our brains have this amazing ability to rewire themselves – a process called neuroplasticity.

Our brains (different than our minds) have no moral compass. And because of this, if we are negative all the time or don’t appreciate the world around us, it will continue to make connections that perpetuate that kind of thinking. However, because of neuroplasticity, if we practice more positive types of thinking like gratitude, our brains can rewire to perpetuate that kind of thinking instead. Our brains cannot think of both negative and positive things at the same time, so which would you rather choose? It can take work and determination, especially if the connections are strong, but practice can make thinking in a more appreciative way your brain’s go to pathway.

Practicing gratitude can help regulate the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of hormones attributed to feeling happy. Also, because it helps regulate hormones and the autonomic nervous system, it can also reduce anxiety and depression. The article The Neuroscience of Gratitude (Chowdhury, 2020) says that studies have shown gratitude to have these #mentalhealth benefits:

  • Gratitude practices reduce cardiac diseases, inflammations, and neurodegeneration significantly
  • Daily journaling and gratitude jars can help individuals fighting with depression, anxiety, and burnout
  • Writing gratitude letters brings hope and evokes positivity in suicidal patients and those fighting terminal diseases
  • Gratitude improves the sleep-wake cycle and enhances mood. It helps people with insomnia, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Ways to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude journals are a popular way to practice gratitude because if forces the person to be intentional about who and what they are being appreciative about. Two tips for keeping a gratitude journal are:

  1. Withhold judgement over what you are writing down. Just write what you are thankful for. There are no wrong answers, so don’t try to make what you are doing negative (that defeats the purpose).
  2. Develop a habit by writing in the gratitude journal consistently. Maybe keep it by your bed to write at night or in the morning when you wake up. Developing a habit is where neuroplasticity is at work as well, so remember what you do the most is what your brain will want to continue to do. Help it out by keeping your journal in a handy spot and writing every day.

But, there are more ways to practice gratitude than writing in a journal. Any time you are truly appreciative you are practicing gratitude.

  • Tell others why you appreciate them and what they bring to the table, especially if it is something you normally take for granted
  • Be grateful for the dinner you are eating
  • Take time to appreciate nature during your walk
  • Be thankful for your work or opportunities
  • Make a gratitude collage – pictures of things you are grateful for or a gratitude kit where you fill it with trinkets that remind you of experiences you are grateful for
  • Don’t forget to be thankful for all of you, too. You can both be grateful for who you are and want to continue to want to grow or improve. They are not mutually exclusive.

Practicing gratitude can have more of a profound impact on the way we think and our mental health than we might even realize. There is a level of intentionality behind practicing it and it forces you to live in the moment as you’re feeling appreciative (a mindfulness technique). Try practicing gratitude daily for 30 days and see the difference it makes in the way you think. You may be surprised the impact it has on the way it changes the way you think and feel.

This is one blog post from a series on #mentalhealthawareness for May. Please sign up for my blog to receive the rest or find them here.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and Defining Mental Health, Issues, and #SEL

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for mental health for #DigCitTO and about half-way through, one of the student panelists brought us back to basics. She said, “I just want to say that mental health and mental (health issues) are different. Everyone has mental health.” It reminded me of how we so often speak about this stuff and throw out these words, but I’m never confident that everyone is on the same page. This month, for Mental Health Awareness, I’m going to be moving from my once-a-week blog posts to one about every other day to address some common mental health and mental health issue topics. If you’d like to receive all of these posts to your email, please sign up for my blog.

My go-to whenever I start something new is to make sure that we have a common language around what we are discussing so we can be sure that when I refer to a topic, we all have a baseline of what it is. Right now, I’d like to define three common terms that I’ve seen used interchangeably that are actually very different: mental health, mental health issues, and social-emotional learning.

Mental Health
According to the WHO, mental health is defined as, “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Everyone has mental health. To address your mental health through self-care or mindfulness is the equivalent of addressing your physical health through diet and exercise. If you don’t take care of your physical health your body may start to fail to work as it’s meant to. The same happens with mental health which can lead to poor mental health or mental health issues.

Mental Health Issues
The term mental health issue has come about as a way to be more sensitive to those who struggle with them, but technically they are synonymous to mental illness, mental health disorders, or mental health conditions. They “affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors” (Mayo Clinic). Mental health issues can be developed from extreme, prolonged stress or trauma, but they can also be hereditary. In fact, having a family member with a mental health issue is the largest risk factor, although some argue that this is not only because of genes but also includes the repeated exposure (stress of living with, taking care of someone) to the mental health issue.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
According to CASEL (my favorite SEL organization for amazing information), social-emotional learning is defined as “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I often see SEL used synonymously with mental health and it is not the same although they may have a symbiotic relationship. I also see SEL used synonymously with student engagement. SEL and student engagement are not the same thing. Although there may be a small piece of engagement in SEL, to define SEL as engagement is largely ignoring the most important pieces of what it actually is. By focusing on social-emotional learning and helping students and adults understand their emotions, make positive, responsible decisions and focus on positive relationships, we are giving them the tools to make decisions and react in a way that will support their mental health.

We are in a place right now where we are willing to talk about social-emotional learning. We are a little resistant to speak about mental health, but we will do it. Mental health issues or illness feels like it’s still off the table. Defining what we are discussing is the first step to understanding what we are really talking about and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.

How a Pandemic Can Change the Way We Feel About Teaching (With tips for coping)

I have been passionately speaking about educator engagement and how connected they feel to their professions for several years, and I also address it extensively in my upcoming book, Reignite the Flames. The impact of educator engagement can be significant, and we could discuss how it affects climate and culture, innovative and divergent thinking, or even student achievement. However, for me, when I disengaged my decision to re-engage had its roots in a very basic human need: to be happy.

But those were normal times. And we aren’t in normal times right now.

Right now, during the pandemic, the goal is coping. Anything beyond that would be extra. And my fear is that along with all of the other impacts we will see from the pandemic, we will also see a sharp decline in educator engagement. People either emotionally or physically leaving the profession at record rates as the uncertainty and educational triage (coined by Philip Pulley) continues.

The first step to being able to cope or heal is to be able to name what is happening. Engagement and disengagement are on a continuum. A slide in disengagement is natural right now as we struggle through the variety of challenges that have been set before us. However, in knowing what and how it can happen we can begin to develop strategies so we don’t fall too far. Below are the five causes of disengagement and how they relate to the pandemic:

Personal adversity Personal adversity is defined as struggles that are a result of something that happens in your personal life. During the pandemic, there are multiple reasons that you may pull away from your profession because you simply don’t have the bandwidth to devote your energies to all areas of your life at once. Right now, there could be concerns about sick loved ones or family members that have passed away. Even the fear of getting the virus can be overwhelming for some people. Personal adversity can also categorize situations where there is a volatile home life. The consumption of alcohol may increase as well as the likelihood of abuse. For some people, educators and students alike, school was a safe haven from these situations and they may no longer have a place to hide.

Tip: Be sure to practice some sort of self-care, even though it may be difficult to fit it in. Do something you enjoy and take time to recharge even if you can only fit it in for five or ten minutes at a time. Find a free educator self-care course here. Of course, if you are in an abusive situation, please seek help immediately.

Professional adversity Professional adversity is defined as the struggles that happen that are in direct relation to our jobs. The move to online learning may be an example of professional adversity for many people, and the lower the comfort level with technology the more anxiety may be felt. Also, the complete uncertainty of not knowing when we are going back, what that will look like, having little control over what our students are accomplishing, and the dichotomy between what/how we know we should be teaching and what/how we are teaching are all concerns that could increase professional adversity.

Tip: Focus on what you do have control over. These are extraordinary times and circumstances. Assume everyone, including students, are doing the best they can.

Burnout With an increase in the number of hours that it takes to learn a new platform, learning a new way to teach, and the potential newness of being “always online” and available, some teachers are reporting working more hours than ever. Couple that with the possible responsibilities of child-rearing, providing learning opportunities for your own children, taking care of pets, or even having extended family members staying for the pandemic, burnout is a very real issue right now. Even being isolated can be exhausting. We are not made to try to juggle everything we are juggling right now.

Tip: Create “work hours” and stick to them. Any communication after 4pm, for example, gets answered the following day. Remove notifications.

Demoralization Most educators got into education with a moral obligation to make a difference in another person’s life and to create change. When something happens: politically, within the district, within the school, or a virus that is keeping everyone at home and any of these things make you question your efficacy, it can cause demoralization. The general way to begin healing from demoralization is to try to find your identity as an educator again. However, in these times, it may be developing your identity as an online educator. Demoralization can accompany burnout but is often overlooked as a reason and unfortunately, healing from demoralization is different than healing from burnout.

Tip: Spend time focusing on passion areas. Reflect on how your identity as an educator has morphed during the pandemic. What areas can you still feel passionate about?

Secondary traumatic stress Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is when you work in a profession where you may hear about other’s traumas and be impacted by their stories and struggles. You may develop the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or trigger PTSD that you may already have. It can be more common for people who are particularly empathetic. Right now, we have spent part of a year with our students and know the struggles they may have at home. Now, we sit in our own homes and wonder how they are, if they are eating, or if they are safe. I have spoken to teachers who have students they haven’t heard from in weeks. This can all be a catalyst for developing secondary traumatic stress.

Tip: Compartmentalize. This is so difficult during these times, but learning to compartmentalize what your students are going through will keep you healthier in order to help them. Continue to reach out to them and offer your support, but understand ultimately that the only real thing you have control over right now is your own health.

Teacher Trauma Teacher trauma, in this case, can span several different types of struggles. I would say that there is a potential to experience teacher trauma if you had a sudden transition to online learning without a chance to say good-bye to your students. There could also be teacher trauma if you have had a student or co-worker pass away from the virus. Being in the times we are in, there is a chance that your grieving may be delayed as the reality doesn’t set in because you are not seeing these people every day and it’s difficult to comprehend. Even grief for the state that we are in right now may be significant.

Tip: My counselor says you need to “feel to heal” and step into the emotion. Recognize when you may be in a cycle of grief and actively work through it. Understand that it may be ongoing and reappear when we begin to enter our buildings again eventually.

My hope with this blog is two-fold. First, I hope that the information is a catalyst for addressing any disengagement that you may be feeling. Second, I hope that school districts choose to recognize the struggles, anxiety, and grief that people may be feeling and address it not only now, but understand that it will continue well into the school year when we get back to our brick and mortar settings. Whichever of these you are feeling, whatever you teach, and wherever you live, you are not alone.