In my district, the district administrators (with the exception of the superintendent and the business administrator) are all housed in the buildings in which it makes the most sense for them to serve instead of residing in offices in the administration building. For example, the SPED director is in the elementary school, the curriculum director in the high school offices, and I am in an office suite that is outside our Genius Bar between our high school and middle school (one building). I have always loved this setup. I don’t miss out on the everyday interactions between myself and staff and students because I am right in the midst of the action. Do I have students coming randomly into my office more than a typical district administrator and they distract me and keep me from my work? Yep. It’s my favorite part.
But with this setup comes the lonely summer. We are not hunkered down in the administrative office together, we are spread out across the district. The buildings are quiet. The other day I was walking down the hall with one of my favorite custodians (they’re all my favorites) and this conversation transpired:
Me: “I can never get used to how quiet it is in here.”
Him: “I know. Kids and teachers will be back soon.”
Me: “I can’t wait. The halls are so lonely. It’s so strange to look down them and not see teachers chatting in the hall or students at their locker. I miss them.”
And he looked at me with the strangest look on his face and said, “Thank you for saying that. I think so, too.” Then he gave me the biggest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen.
It dawned on me right then he may have been expecting an array of snarky comments back from needing a longer vacation to how much easier our job would be without students. I, myself, have heard it all, so I can’t even imagine what the custodians have heard. In that moment I had the choice of saying something negative. I chose to say what I feel to be true, but he interpreted that as a positive. What made my heart sink was his surprise at my response. Have we really gotten in such a habit of complaining about the entire reason for our jobs that it has become the norm? What people expect? Are we trying to be funny? Because I am widely known for my sarcasm, but I don’t think that negativity against an entire group of people we serve is funny.
I started thinking about how many times I have fallen into this trap with others in conversation, and I was embarrassed that I had sometimes taken the negative road more commonly traveled. It is so much more difficult to be positive when everyone around you is negative, but it’s also so much more important to be so. But, this goes into the deeper conversation of how we really create change. Change, by its very nature, happens by someone doing something different. When we talk about anything that goes against the grain (being positive in a negative climate, building a robust, supportive culture, speaking about teacher mental health issues when some people don’t want to hear it) we will run into adversity. If changes were easy and happened without effort, we’d never need to speak of the hard work that goes into creating real, authentic, lasting change.
The other day I was being interviewed by Forbes for an article on the status of teacher mental health and the person interviewing me asked me what it takes to be an “upstander”. She said, “You know, someone who stands up for what they believe in.” I had to really think about this because my initial reaction was I have no idea. But, I do know that as cliche as it sounds, it often involves taking the road less traveled. I know that sometimes you need to do the things that go against what everyone else seems to be doing, thinking, and saying. People may get mad, they may even get mean (hello? Twitter anyone?), and you need to be able to accept that because those are the ones who need your change the most. Sometimes, those things are difficult and test our will and dedication because there will always be people who don’t agree with you, even on topics that would seem common sense. It takes an unwavering belief in what you believe, it takes resilience when people try to take you down, and it takes a support system to remind you that you’re not wrong when things start to look grim. Many times, being an upstander involves taking the difficult road when everyone else seems to be taking the easy, more accepted one. That’s the difference between people who stand up for what they believe in and those that just don’t.
Quite a few people I know focus heavily on data and research. They’re all about if things have been tested out and if they can be replicated in their own classroom. I have no issue with this, but there are some concepts we talk about in education that are difficult to put a number to or maybe haven’t had a viable experiment published to look at. One of these concepts is the importance of relationships. I’ve written about the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Van Der Kolk before, and it is quickly moving up my favorite books list (even though it’s taking me forever to get through it, but that’s only because I somehow think I can read several professional books at the same time and I actually can’t). The book describes the psychological effects of trauma but also goes into some basics about psychology that, in our profession, explains so many things. Honestly, it’s almost uncanny.
In regards to the importance of relationships in general, Van Der Kolk says this:
The Polyvagal Theory “clarified why knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm an safe, and why being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.”
“Our inner mirror neurons register (others) inner experience, and our own bodies make internal adjustments to whatever we notice…When the message we receive from another person is “You’re safe with me,” we relax. If we’re lucky in our relationships, we also feel nourished, supported, and restored as we look into the face and eyes of the other.”
“The critical issue (of social support) is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
And in regards to trauma directly:
“Many traumatized people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them.”
If we are focusing on the importance of relationships in general, our brains are wired to do whatever we can to be a part of a group because even at a subconscious level we are trying to constantly maintain relationships. When you try to redirect that child who constantly says they don’t care, they actually do. When that teacher you work with is disengaged and doesn’t want to participate in the professional development, they actually do. The issue isn’t that the desire isn’t there, it’s that they don’t know how to make that connection or voice their feelings or their social fears are louder than their desire to make things right.
Whether we believe it’s a part of our “personality” to do so or not, our brains desire to be in sync with the people around us. And while I either haven’t gotten this far in the book or it’s not in there, I would imagine that a constant or consistent lack of being able to feel in sync with the people around us, whether it’s because of trauma or not, will lead to an attitude of “not caring” as a defense mechanism. Saying “I’m going to not care because it protects me from the disequilibrium I feel by trying to unsuccessfully have a safe relationship with you” protects ourselves and is easier than trying for the relationship in the first place.
One of my best and worst qualities is the fact that I wear my heart completely on my sleeve. In the past, it was worse than it is now because I have worked really hard to school my features when it comes to communicating with people, but let’s face it, I still stink at it. When I’m loving and caring people love this about me because they feel that connection coming through. But, when I disagree they see that as well. I’ve noticed that because of this when I disagree with something people immediately get defensive without me saying a word. For me, it is an involuntary reaction. However, I wonder how many times I have made people feel out of sync with me just from an involuntary reaction that to me just means I need more information, but for them is perceived as I believe you’re wrong?
I’ve believed for a long time that relationships are the foundation for everything we do. Apparently, our brains believe that, too. So the question is, how can we shift what we do to ensure the people (kids and adults) around us feel safe and loved in order to shift their attitude back to believing in the power of relationships as well? How do our actions and beliefs about certain people perpetuate the lack of a relationship (ie if there’s a child that you don’t care for their attitude, are you perpetuating your lack of being in sync with your own nonverbal communication)? As per usual, the answer to change begins with looking inside ourselves and beginning with us.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece called The Rules of Teacher Engagement which discussed teacher engagement and what it means when teachers become disconnected from their profession like I did some years ago, and how I took control and turned it around. Educator disengagement is stronger than just not being interested in what your learning or teaching at the time. It’s the complete disconnection to the why behind teaching. It gives people’s minds the opportunity and permission to do things like incessantly complain about students’ laziness, roll their eyes at the teachers who are excited and still engaged, and either do anything they can to work against the administration or just do nothing exciting to fly under the radar. And sometimes the teachers who are the most disengaged expect the highest level of engagement out of their disengaged students, even though they don’t feel that connection themselves.
This came to my attention a few years ago when I disengaged. It was a terrible feeling. I hated my job, looked forward to the end of the day or end of the week, took only what I had home and rarely found interest in anything education-based. I like to tell myself that my students didn’t notice because, for me, it wasn’t the students but the politics of education that disengaged me, but that’s probably not true. They probably knew. And even though I had the sweetest, most hard-working class I had ever had my last year I was in the classroom, I couldn’t pull myself back into the groove to even really appreciate it. It’s seriously one of my biggest professional regrets. Because when the students don’t feel like we care even when they’re struggling (especially when they’re struggling) we have truly failed as educators.
I feel like many of us can think about someone who fits this description. And, like with everything, there’s a continuum of feeling this way. On one side, there is the completely engaged educator, and I feel like I am almost there today (some of the tactics I employed to get there can be found in The Rules of Teacher Engagement). So, the first question is: how do people get this way? I think there are a few possibilities to what brings this on, but part of the difficulty of “solving” the issue is that it’s so deeply personal to whoever is experiencing it. That’s why the best prevention is self-awareness and knowing if you’re beginning to fall into the trap.
Sometimes, I think what emotionally removes people from education has nothing to do with education at all. It is a personal trauma or adversity that needs a person’s full attention, and it is either so deep or takes so long that people don’t know how to get back into the education groove and find that happy place again.
Professional Hurt One of the biggest takeaways I had from Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda‘s book Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank was that when we suffer adversity in the workplace, it emotionally hurts us. We become a little more disheartened with every time it happens. Sometimes, it’s simply about having more put on our plates than any one person can be expected to do. It could also be workplace bullying (which can come in the form of colleagues, parents, administration), an administrator or colleagues who are against risk-taking, or policies that are compliance-based and stifle creativity and innovation. Even a lack of trust for the people around you can cause hurt. And depending on their level of resilience, everyone will have a maximum that when they reach it, they may give up. Even the most resilient people have a breaking point, and reaching that point may cause them to become disengaged.
Burnout Sometimes, we overuse the term burnout. We say things like, “I’m so burnt out after the tough week.” But, professional burnout is absolutely a real thing, and one of the feelings that true burnout can lead to is detachment. In 2016, Psychology Today posted the article The Teacher Burnout Epidemic (Parts 1 and 2) on teacher burnout which included data that said:
About half a million (15% of) U.S. teachers leave the profession every year (Seidel, 2014).
More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen significantly over the last two decades (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). This provides clarification to Ingersoll’s (2012) oft-cited estimate that 40%-50% of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.
TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) reported almost 66% of the nation’s best teachers continue to leave the profession for careers elsewhere (Chartock & Wiener, 2014).
It is clear our teachers are struggling, but we should refrain from placing the blame on them. Rather, consider the demands and unsustainability of the job.
…teachers are less likely to be able to deliver high quality instruction when they are not able to decompress (Neufeldnov, 2014). Stressed, overworked, frustrated teachers are less able to connect in positive ways with students and to offer students the best instruction. (Rankin, 2016)
Some of the symptoms of burnout include:
Consistently being emotionally and physically exhausted accompanied with dread of what might happen the next day
Impaired concentration that can get worse the longer it continues
Weakened immune system (ie you get sick easier)
Other mental health issues like anxiety or depression
In the beginning, constant irritability and later, angry outbursts
Many of the symptoms of burnout can affect both a person’s personal and professional life. I thought one of the most interesting ways to handle burnout was found in this article by Mayo Clinic. Among other suggestions to handle burnout like seeking support and identifying stressors, it said:
Adjust your attitude. If you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.
Burnout or not, something I think we could all remember this.
Secondary Traumatic Stress Secondary traumatic stress (STS) (also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma), as discussed in my book The Fire Within, is when people who hear of other’s trauma and who work with others who have experienced a trauma and exhibit trauma behaviors begin to develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even if they have never suffered a trauma themselves. I included this chart in my book from the US Department of Human Services as the symptoms to look for:
Preoccupation with trauma
Increased heart rate
Muscle and joint pain
Impaired immune system
Increased severity of medical concerns
STS and burnout have both similar symptoms and ways to handle them. For both, it’s important to recognize when you need professional help.
Regardless of the reason for disengagement, the most important step to take is developing self-awareness and being mindful of how you feel in order to catch it in the early stages. I want people to understand that these feelings are real, and they are not weird or terrible teachers for having them, but there is an underlying cause to their disengagement. Many times I find that educators who are disengaged aren’t necessarily truly happy people, at least not in their profession. And I do believe that it is so much more rewarding to love your job and what you do, and in turn, the students you teach and love will be better people for it, and that’s really why we got into education in the first place.
The world is finally beginning to wake up to the issues of mental illness and the far-reaching effects that it has on everyone’s life. Nobody is immune. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how “social” you appear to be, or how many times you smile. There are people out there who cannot control their thoughts and that’s not due to a personality flaw or a mental weakness. Mental illness is an illness. For some, it is one that never goes away. For many of us, it is something that we live with and find strategies to deal with in order to keep ourselves functioning, and in many cases, alive on a daily basis. We would change it if we could.
For people who don’t experience these things, please understand: it is not your job to judge if we “should” be feeling this way. We know we shouldn’t. That’s not a question. What we really want is your support and understanding. We want to be like you without these feelings. Show us your compassion and empathetic sides. We just want to know we are not alone and you don’t think we are weird. We want to know that when we get enough courage to tell you about our sickness that you don’t look at us with pity or distain but instead with an understanding and strategic side that will help us make it through our bouts.
I’ve written about this many times, trying so hard to destigmatize mental illness and to forget the look on the face of the one person who didn’t understand what I was going through; the catalyst for this mission. That face is ingrained in my head. When I saw this tweet from Emily Thomas
Can we start a MeToo campaign, but for mental health ? I would love to hear everyone’s untold stories so we can all support each other ❤️
regarding beginning a #metoo campaign for mental health, I knew I was all in. I had been racking my brain to try to find another way to shed light on the topic but didn’t know how. It was a lightbulb moment, and I’m all in.
#ItsTime is going to be used for stories of how mental illness has affected lives: maybe it’s yours, maybe it was a family member, maybe your best friend, maybe your student or teacher; everyone has been affected. It’s to show support and offer true compassion and empathy should anyone need to talk. It’s taking it one step further from just posting the National Suicide Hotline number or offering condolences after the fact.
#ItsTime to remove the stigma.
#ItsTime to recognize the far-reaching effects mental illness has on people.
#ItsTime to do something more than nothing.
The more we talk about it, the less of a stigma it will have, and less of a control that it will have on all our lives. I don’t want myself or the people I love to feel like they need to keep it all inside because they are well respected in the community/profession and they don’t want to show that as a weakness. #ItsTime to take control and stop allowing these illnesses to control us.
I know that my blog is primarily education focused, and it will continue to be that way. I love the work I do, but I also am 100% positive that we are not immune to these issues. I will continue posting about issues in education once a week, as is my goal. However, I will also try to post a second time during the week regarding anything I’ve learned about mental illness from writing my book or just being me and living with it. But in the meantime, let’s get this going. #ItsTime.
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):
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.
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.
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!)
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.