Mandy Froehlich · Mental Health Issues · reflections · relationships · The Fire Within Book #FireWithinBook

Self-awareness & Advocacy for Educator Mental Health

Because of my upcoming book The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I am asked a lot about social-emotional learning and support for students. I’m not sure my answer ever goes where people expect it to go. While I believe that we need to focus on the students and their needs, I do believe that there is a place where teachers need to be emotionally healthy in order to help our students the best they can. By taking care of ourselves we are ultimately helping our students. By the district supporting teachers’ emotional and mental health, we are in turn supporting students. While students certainly are our main focus for everything we do, they cannot be our only focus. Mentally and emotionally strong teachers (even if that strength comes from working through their challenges) is necessary to really know and understand what our students need.

We are beginning to recognize the mental health challenges and issues that our students are experiencing. For the last few years, we have implemented brain breaks and mindfulness techniques. Lately, I’ve seen a rise in the recommendations for teachers to practice mindfulness as well. In general, I’ve found that districts recognize the need for mindfulness and balance, but because the workload never changes, many educators feel like the idea of mindfulness is just one more thing to do.

While I do believe that everyone should learn mindfulness techniques and choose strategies that work for them, I maintain that these strategies are not going to be enough for people who suffer from a mental health issues, nor is it going to give the co-workers of these people a support structure to help when those people are struggling. Sometimes, both knowing to ask for help and knowing how to give it are not inherent qualities. Sometimes, knowing these things needs to be taught and practiced.

Awareness and Advocacy
One of the most important steps to take when beginning the journey of being the best teacher you can be is growing your self-awareness and advocating for yourself and others (think destigmatizing mental health issues). Knowing how your feeling and monitoring your stress levels, especially if you do suffer from a mental illness, is going to be the difference between being able to be proactive and reactive to an increase in the intense feelings that can come on sometimes unexpectedly. Testing strategies of what works for you when you begin to feel overwhelmed and keeping those in your back pocket will allow you to take control of the stress. For example, I have anxiety and I suffer from panic attacks. When I feel one beginning, I know I need someone to talk to me about anything silly and innocuous because it helps calm me. That is my strategy number one. My second strategy is to read a book. Altogether, I have about five strategies that I can pull out at any given time to help me work through my anxiety, however, I needed to develop a deep self-awareness to know what I needed and when I might need to deploy them. Strategies are specific to the person. I have friends who prefer to be alone to process, and that’s okay too if that’s working for them.

I am a strong advocate for districts to implement programs to provide better support for teachers. Teaching how to balance life, work smarter not harder, deal with trauma in both their own lives and their students, are issues that districts need to address. However, realistically, we need to take control of our own stories and focus on what we can do for ourselves as well. We are the holders of our own feelings, and only we can be the ones to make the decision to grow from what we learn about ourselves. If we wait around for the support to come to us, we may be waiting too long. Also, it’s important that when I’m finally offered support, I know what it is that I need. I need to know what to ask for.

Secondary Traumatic Stress
In writing my book, I’ve learned about Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) which is another issue that, as educators, we need to be aware of. STS is when a professional works with people (in our case, students) who suffer from trauma. The professionals can develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including (taken from Secondary Trauma):

intrusive thoughts
chronic fatigue
sadness
anger
poor concentration
second guessing
detachment
emotional exhaustion
fearfulness
shame
physical illness
absenteeism

Secondary Traumatic Stress needs to be addressed and dealt with. Sometimes, it’s necessary to see a counselor to work through the feelings and have strategies going forward. This is another area where both teachers need to be self-aware and districts need to provide additional support. If you already suffer from PTSD, developing STS can exacerbate your own issues depending on where you are in your own healing process, which is just another reason to be reflective and self-aware enough to recognize when there are changes in your emotions.

Most importantly, the more we acknowledge these challenges and support each other instead of holding it in and feeling alone, the quicker we will destigmatize the mental health issues that everyone either has or know someone who has. Recently, my counselor (yes, I see one because sometimes I need help with my feelings and I’m not embarrassed by it) said to me, “Putting a voice to something that others keep in their heads is called bravery.” And when we are brave, we gift the others around us the courage to do the same.

courage

Change · divergence · growth mindset · Mandy Froehlich · Mental Health Issues · reflections

Finding The Passion Needed For Great Change

I was in the grocery store the other day and I did something that I very rarely do, I picked up a magazine and read the cover. I’m usually so busy reading edu books that I don’t typically look at anything else, but the Oprah magazine for this month caught my eye. The article was called What Would You Stand Up For: It’s your time to rise and be the light you want to see. That article, coupled with my newest obsessions in the Heath Books, The Power of Moments and Switch: How to change when change is hard has given me pause as to what I’m really doing with my life. Kind of the “What’s my overall purpose here on Earth” question. The BIG why. Pretty deep thinking to have been brought on by a magazine, but I’ll take it.

I have lived my entire life with the desire to do something that actually matters, and also with the all-encompassing fear that one day I’ll wake up and realize I’ve done nothing to make a difference. I think that many educators live with this same feeling at different levels. It may even be the reason they went into education in the first place. I think that when you enter a profession that is more like a calling (teaching, nursing/doctor, police officer, many public servant jobs), this feeling is deeper rooted than most other careers because you need to give so much more of yourself, and your actual “payday” is when something happens and you know you’ve made a difference. Like when you have worked with a teacher and then watch as their thinking does a 180, or when that lightbulb goes off over a student’s head and they finally get that difficult concept that up until that point had been eluding them. We need the money from our jobs to pay our bills, but our success is measured in the lives affected versus our bank account balance. We want to make a difference.

For many of the stories in the Oprah article, the people featured are making that difference in whatever endeavor they took on. Typically, the change happened when they had experienced some kind of tragedy, hardship, or trauma and they had that moment…that one epiphany…that created a relentless determination to create a different world so others didn’t need to go through the same experiences, or if they did, they knew they weren’t alone. I began to think about how it does seem like that’s a common catalyst for great change to begin. What I don’t understand is how we can be more proactive instead of reactive. Why does it take the feelings of hurt in order to motivate people?

In education right now, I feel like many of us are spinning. It’s like that feeling when your kids first start walking and you’re running around in circles trying to save them from their own unbalance so they don’t crack their head on the corner of the end table as well as scrambling to pick anything up that you didn’t know they could reach all the while mentally trying to take note of the electrical sockets that you forgot to plug and then the issue of just trying to keep another human alive. We are being battered with school shootings and politicians who have never set foot in a classroom and an increase in behaviors due to mental health issues for students as well as policy and implementation and technology changes. As far as I’m concerned, we have hit that critical point where most people begin to relentlessly pursue change, even though I can’t say that I understand why we need to get to that point to do so. But, we are so busy trying to find the unearthed electrical plugs that we have no energy to think about how to move forward.

If we want to be change agents, great creators of change, we need to find the thing that sets our soul on fire. We need to stop spinning and focus on where our passions lie and where we can create the biggest waves. The beginning of the Oprah article was what caught my attention:

When you find it, you know it: the issue that sets your brain aflame, the one you’re incapable of shutting up about, consequences be damned. And those consequences are often all too real – discord, danger, or at least some very difficult conversations. Maybe you haven’t happened upon your burning issue yet, or maybe you’re facing a thousand other everyday battles, feeling too overloaded to make an impact, but there are countless ways to get loud about the topics you care about, or to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone to make your message heard. Here’s hoping no one’s unlucky enough to get in your way.

-The Oprah Magazine, April 2018

I have found mine in discussing the mental health issues that our teachers are facing and how to create organizational change to support teachers (therefore supporting students as well) but everyone needs to find what lights them up. I know there are people out there who don’t want to hear about it, and I can tell you that there’s nothing that will fire me up quicker than someone who doesn’t want to recognize this issue. That’s how I know it’s mine. I have no idea if I will make a major change globally, but if I make a difference for one in doing the absolute best I can, I feel I’ve done something which is more than nothing. I think we all need to look for this thing…this one passion that we can’t ignore. If we want to create change, widespread organizational change, we can’t wait for a catastrophe for it to happen. We need to make the decision to find the one thing that lights us up and go with it. For me, I know that if I take this on, it’s the only way I know I won’t wonder one day if I made any difference at all.

steve jobs

Mandy Froehlich · Mental Health Issues · reflections · relationships

The Depressed Educator: If only “getting help” really worked like that

I have been spending a great deal of my time talking about the mental health of educators and students. Maybe it’s because so much of my life is wrapped up in dealing with mental health that I feel it’s time we talk about it. Maybe it’s because I hope that my story or experiences help others. Maybe it’s because writing about it helps me. My mother had mental health issues, I have PTSD which has resulted in depression and anxiety, my youngest daughter has depression and anxiety from the trauma of her adoption. I go to school and work with kids that have mental health issues both diagnosed and not. It literally directly surrounds me every single day. Society ignores it because so many of us still remember our grandparent’s world where we were safe to ride our bikes to a friend’s house and come home when it started to get dark and we didn’t speak about things that were unpleasant. But, we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world where students come to school and beat up their teachers and shoot their teachers and classmates. Where young and old are taking their own lives because they feel like not living is preferable to how they live. If there was ever a time to start talking about mental health issues, this is it (actually, it was probably about 10 years ago).

When I wrote Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator, I was both glad so many people connected with it and heartbroken that so many did. I received private messages from people with stories of suicide attempts, shock therapies (yes, that’s a thing), and feelings of hopelessness so deeply profound that it made me cry. I was humbled that so many were willing to share their stories with me. I was also angry that they all said that they didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone because they didn’t want to be seen as weak, pathetic, incompetent or unstable. How awful is it that someone struggling should have to then worry about what other’s think, even though the people around them are what they need for support to make it through their most difficult times.

My latest lesson is that getting help is not easy. Although I have had depression for a long time, I haven’t gone in for assistance for years. I’ve been handling it on my own, which probably hasn’t been my smartest move. But, like with many educators, when it comes down to time and what needs to be taken out to accommodate everything from our work to our own families, what is specific to us is the first thing to go. It was no different for me. For 20 years I was married, raised four kids, and went for my undergrad and grad school degrees every semester without fail while working. I was focused on getting through my days, and while there were times that I did go in for counseling, it was not something that I did on a regular basis. But, this last December, I honestly had a very close call with being unable to control my depression. A few of my friends convinced me to get help, and when the logical side of my brain finally kicked in, I knew they were right. So, I began my search for help feeling hopeful that I would be able to get in and be seen quickly to ward off any slipping back into the dark abyss of where I was.

I have discovered that it is not only nearly impossible, but it’s time-consuming. The medical field and community partnerships make it sound like help is available all the time. All you do is call the Suicide Hotline or a counselor and you’ll be on your way to recovery. While I’ve never called that number, and I would certainly hope that they would be quick to help, my experience was a far cry from how I imagined it would be. First, I spent hours on the insurance company’s website looking for a counselor that might fit my needs. Did I need a psychiatrist? Psychologist? A counselor? I had no idea. I knew I had PTSD and was desperately looking for someone who specialized in that. Finally, I found what seemed like was “the one” and called the number only to find out that the insurance company’s database wasn’t updated and when it said the counselor was accepting new patients, that wasn’t necessarily right. I was told by one office that my particular insurance company’s database is never right and not to trust it, but as a receptionist, she also couldn’t tell me who in the area WAS accepting new patients. So, I ended up ignoring their specialty areas and calling down the page just looking for someone, anyone, taking new patients. In the list of “accepting new patients” on the insurance company’s website, I had to call 12 places to find a doctor that was, indeed, taking on new clients.

When I finally found a clinic with multiple counselors taking new patients, they told me it would be 4-6 weeks for an appointment from the time that I received their paperwork, filled it out, and sent it back. They would not even schedule my appointment until I filled out the paperwork. While speaking to the receptionist, I admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and the person on the other line said, “Are you having them today?” It was such a strange question, and I had to take a second. I didn’t know…was I? I scanned my brain and decided that no, I wasn’t.

Not THAT day.

The next day I couldn’t guarantee, but not that day. Plus, I was petrified of what they would do to me. I had a brief flash of being put into a 24- or 48-hour hold in a mental hospital, or whatever they do, followed by rumors at work starting the next day perpetually being made worse by whispers in the teacher’s lounge. The feeling of having to return and people looking at me like I was crazy…no thanks. I was NOT suicidal that day. I spent the next few weeks waiting for paperwork, spending copious amounts of time on the phone with the insurance company getting questions answered, sending back the paperwork, and even though I began this particular journey the beginning of December to talk to a counselor about the desire to take my life, I have my first appointment the last week in February.

So, what have I taken away from this?

Our first response to discovering that someone needs more assistance than what we can offer is “Go get help” not understanding that it’s not that easy. If we can get past the stigma attached to seeking out medical assistance for our issues, we are still dealing with the people around us who can’t. I have been a part of the type of discussions that start out with “Did you hear…” and end with “so when she had her nervous breakdown, they put her in the mental ward at the hospital.” Those conversations make me uncomfortable, and if I had been suicidal the day the receptionist asked, I still think I would have said no. Not only would I never have wanted to be the subject of that type of convo, but I would never want students to overhear that information and feel like they couldn’t work with me because of it. Or other adults for that matter. I wouldn’t want them to feel like the stigma of what I would have faced would “rub off on them” by working with me. When I say things like that, people say it’s ridiculous and that nobody would think that way, but realistically, we ALL KNOW people that do. That’s the problem. What should be and what is are sometimes two completely different things.

Second, I was fortunate, as usual, to have people who love and care for me backing me up all the way. I even had a friend ask me to send a photo of my insurance card and they would find help FOR me when I didn’t feel like I could do it myself. But, I can’t imagine not having that kind of support and still moving through all the steps that needed to be done just to make the appointment. As with many mental illnesses, your brain makes you feel like you need to feel that way, and there’s even a certain level of anxiety in the idea of changing. If you’re struggling with getting help, you have little to no support, and then there are all these roadblocks in getting assistance, what percentage of people are really going to go all the way through? Do teachers have time to call all these places in the 25 minute prep period they might get a day? Do parents, who may have undiagnosed or unassisted mental health issues themselves, have the knowledge, support, and damn near relentlessness it takes to make their child an appointment? Make themselves one?

When I finally made my appointment, my initial appointment was 90 minutes and the doctor would only see new patients at 10:30am on Wednesdays. For a teacher, this means an entire day off from work as there would be no half day to accommodate that time. Is the medical profession really doing all they can to help people with these issues? I recently learned of a school district that tried to bring in counseling services for students, but the local hospital wouldn’t accommodate their request because even though they’d be getting paid for their services, they would make more money by seeing students on their own site, therefore, making it more difficult for families, especially those who may not have transportation.

I just wrote a really long blog post on what seems to be things that we have little control over (insurance, doctors, other people) and that’s probably true. But, we do have control over the way we react to someone who has mental health issues and who needs or is trying to get help. For those people, we need your support. We need you to call and ask us how we are and if there is anything you can do. We don’t necessarily need you to tell us to be happier (Depression) or stop being nervous (Anxiety). We need you to say, “What can I do to help?” and then just listen. If someone is going through what I went through with seeking a medical professional to speak with, maybe helping the person to make a list and then sitting next to them as they check through everything that needs to be done until they have what they need. Keep them going when they may not be able to do it for themselves.

If you’re the educator trying to get help, honestly, I’m so proud of you. Surround yourself with the people who can help you through. And there may be times when you feel like you just can’t do one more thing, and I get it. That’s where your support comes in. You’re not bothering anyone, and there will always be someone willing to help you through that process because there will always be someone who understands. The more we bring these issues to light, the more likely we are to defeat that darkness.

Keep the conversation going.

(Quick note: I always get an outpouring of amazing support and kind words when I do posts like this. I am doing better by getting help and leaning on my support system. Thank you!)

mentalhealth_infographic-10
Taken from 7 Things I Wish People Knew About Mental Illness
Mandy Froehlich · Mental Health Issues · PLN · reflections · relationships

Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator

I have used my blog as a professional outlet, as a way to work through issues and thoughts in a way that has allowed me to grow and change as an educator. While the nature of educational blogs requires a certain level of filtering, I have been as honest as I can knowing that the best way we can all grow is if we address all the elephants in the room. But, I’ve had a personal elephant as well that I try to keep in the corner, and I’ve recently realized that ignoring the issue allows others to feel alone and perpetuates the social stigma and allows it to win, and I’m not a girl who likes to lose. Ever.

Education has gotten better at recognizing mindfulness and mental health. We take brain breaks, practice yoga in classrooms and we teach deep breathing exercises to kids. We have started to recognize teachers and their mental health as well, and have begun to teach them mindfulness as well as tips for dealing with secondary trauma and stress. But, in order for our mental health to be optimal, we need to also recognize mental illness, and nobody wants to talk about that. We want to work on getting people mentally healthy without recognizing that some people need additional help and support beyond Downward Dog. It’s a challenge for some to recognize these issues because the parts that are broken you can’t see from the outside. They are not physically obvious like a broken bone or sprained ankle. There are no casts or braces. Because of the nature of our profession, many of us are fantastic at hiding the issues with smiles and fake cheerfulness which seems genuine because we have had a ridiculous amount of practice at making it that way.

We are often told that we need to leave our personal issues in the car when we come to work, and I totally, 100% agree with this. Depression is not an excuse for dumping our problems on our students or the people around us. Our students have enough on their plates. They do not need the personal issues of adults added to them. That is incredibly unfair to do to them. That means, however, for people who are dealing with a true mental illness like depression or anxiety, our ability to hide our feelings is of the utmost importance. It is not optional. It is absolutely imperative that our students only get the best versions of us, even if it is temporarily not the real one.

Depression is not about choosing to feel happy or sad. It is not about choosing to smile or be serious. Nobody would choose to have these kinds of feelings if they could help it. It’s like having a disconnect between the logical and the emotional side of your brain. I have depression and anxiety. My emotional brain is my biggest, most effective and dangerous bully. It tells me every morning that I’m fat and worthless, that I’ve done nothing with my life and I matter to no one. It tells me that the world would be a better place without me and that although other people tell me it would be selfish, I would actually be doing a service to the people so they didn’t have to “put up” with me. My logical brain tells me that part of my brain is defective and I should ignore it, and I hold onto logic like a liferaft to get me through tough moments. Minute by minute I work through my day. I focus on breathing in and breathing out because I find sometimes that I’m  holding my breath. If I can get through one minute, I can get through the next. I have a difficult time compartmentalizing simple things because I work so hard to keep this part of myself under lock and key. I sometimes sit at my desk and cry when everyone else has left the office because I am exhausted from all the effort of being “normal”. In my darkest times, I feel like I have more than a broken heart, I have a broken soul. Yet, I get up every day, go to work, put on a smile, and work with and for our kids. I use humor as a defense mechanism. Sometimes, the happier I seem, the more depressed I actually am, which really just perpetuates the perception that I’m ok. The fact that not many people would know this about me is always a personal win.

I get through these times with a strong support system. I have people around me who believe for me when I don’t believe in myself. Some know me so well they can sense it, which is so important because it’s difficult to talk about. It’s seen as a weakness, and people say, “How can you not be happy? You’ve been successful, you have great kids, you smile and laugh…I saw you do it! You’ll be fine! Just think happy thoughts.” And that’s what my logical brain would tell me, but my emotional brain fights it, and I need my people to keep me afloat until I’m able to do it again myself.

For me, depression is also not a one-time occurrence. I have lived with it every day for at least 25 years. Sometimes I am on an upswing and I have it under control. Sometimes, there is a trigger that sets it off, sometimes it happens for no apparent reason. The idea that depression goes away or is just about being sad is a misnomer. I often think of my upswing times as just being in remission.

So many educators I’ve spoken with who have these same issues have felt a connection with people like Robin Williams. Other depressed individuals who have put everyone else’s happiness before their own, and lost their battle because they had nothing left for themselves and to deal with their own demons. Think of any great educator you know, and they would fit the mold of someone who gives everything they can to everyone around them, and you may never know the internal battle that’s raging. We have people around us every day who need additional support and we may never know it because they are doing the best they can for the people around them.

So, why would I write this post? I wholeheartedly realize that I’m going out on a limb. But, I don’t want people who are suffering from these ailments to feel like they suffer in a dark corner alone like I have. It makes me angry that I’ve thought about posting this before, but when I’ve spoken to people in person about it, I’ve watched their facial expressions turn from one of caring to one of either pity or concern that I might be “unstable”. I want others to know that they are not weird or crazy (a super irritating word for someone with true mental illness), even though they may feel like people are looking at them that way when they speak about it. I want people to recognize that mental health is more than just showing people how to reduce stress, but it is also about recognizing mental illness and supporting people when and where they need it most. I want the lucky ones who haven’t felt this way to empathize and to understand that there is nothing on Earth I’d love more than to not feel sad, so stop telling me to smile because I’m trying. So. Hard.

Most of all, I want to start the discussion. It’s about time.

broken crayons