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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Educators, Don’t Forget About Your Own Mental Health.

By Peter DeWitt — September 09, 2020 7 min read
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We have seen the statistics where the mental health of students is concerned (CDC statistics). COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue of mental health among all students, but more than ever, it has compounded the issue of mental health among our students living in poverty. That is why some experts have argued for students to be back in class in person rather than continue to be educated online.

What about the adults? After all, they have the life experience to process all of the issues that come with a pandemic, right?

COVID-19 has been one of the most difficult experiences that people have seen in their lifetimes. Over 180,000 people in the U.S. have died because of the disease. On a much smaller scale than that tragic number, our patience is wearing, and we find ourselves giving dirty looks (eyes only because masks cover our mouths and nose) to people at the grocery store who cannot figure out which way to walk down an aisle even though the signs clearly state that they are going the wrong way.

We have seen throw downs when people try to walk into a store without a mask on, because they feel that their freedoms are being attacked. And let’s face it, looking at Facebook and the news is no picnic these days. Every story posted on social media seems to be political, and every news story feels as though it is meant to provide information and create fear at the same time. But heh, those nightly news programs offer us a two-minute happy story at the end, so we should be thankful, right?

If we are looking for an escape at school, we won’t get one because all of this will play out in school this year.

We will see parents who ignore which way to walk, children who have no idea what 1.5 meters or 6 feet means, and adults who will have nervous breakdowns when the first cases of COVID appear in their schools. That is not sarcasm. It’s real. Let’s face it, in the past, we had parents who skipped the parent pickup door every afternoon to get their child first, so the rules we set will not be followed by everyone, and that puts us on edge.

Additional to that, the past six months have been an experiment in social isolation, breaking habits that apparently include touching our faces and hugging other people, and the feeling of isolation will only get worse for those of us who live in countries that are approaching fall, which then of course, leads to shorter days with light and more time inside because of the increasingly cold temperatures.

We often hear about having a growth mindset, being resilient, or having grit in our educational world, but the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to look within ourselves like never before. That opportunity is to get a handle on our mental health so we can better help our students as we move forward.

Let’s look first to the statistics, so I can build the case for us to finally get a handle on our own mental health.

The Statistics
The World Health Organization (WHO), One in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.

In August (2020), on Global Mental Health Day, WHO reported,

Mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health. Close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol, and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide. And now, billions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on people's mental health.

When it comes to mental health, and understanding some of the main issues of anxiety and depression that we face, Anxiety.org and the Anxiety and Depression of America explain that,

General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a psychiatric condition best characterized by worries that are excessive and interfere with normal social functioning. The worry is intense and pervasive, lasts a long time, and frequently occurs for no reason. People suffering from GAD are likely to perceive everyday life as unmanageable. For adults to be diagnosed with GAD, they will exhibit at least three of the six primary symptoms.

Sadly, many of those who experience anxiety and depression, as well as other mental-health issues, do not have access to, or they simply do not seek, treatment. WHO went on to say,

Yet, relatively few people around the world have access to quality mental health services. In low- and middle-income countries, more than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders receive no treatment for their condition at all. Furthermore, stigma, discrimination, punitive legislation and human rights abuses are still widespread.

I imagine that, although the use of the word “disorder” is a medical term, it is not a word that people often want to use for themselves, and therefore, probably aggravates the issue for those not wanting to get help.

When it comes to teachers, the statistics do not look much better. The American Federation of Teachers (2015) found that, “78% of teachers reported feeling physically and emotionally exhausted,” and that was well before COVID-19 entered into our lives.

In the U.K., Education Support released a Health Survey, showing that, “75% of teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and other education staff said they have experienced a variety of stress or anxiety symptoms in the last two years";

  • Almost 1 in five (19%) said they had experienced panic attacks.
  • Over half (56%) had suffered from insomnia and difficulties sleeping.
  • Over a third (41%) had experienced difficulty concentrating.

What Should We Do?
For full disclosure, anxiety is an issue I have often dealt with in my personal life, but before I dealt with it, I spent years not doing anything about it. Then, a little over two years ago, I came to a place of exhaustion that forced my hand in it all. I began daily meditation practices and started reading articles about mental health and mindfulness so I could learn more about what was going on inside.

There were many years that I thought I was the only one experiencing it, and I was embarrassed. I spent the better part of 27 years putting myself (financially as well as time and commitment) through a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate, as well as teaching for 11 years, working my way to become a principal, and then writing six books and spending a majority of each year on the road. I loved seeing new places because I grew up in a one-parent household (my dad passed when I was young) where we did not have a lot of money and never traveled.

What I learned is I spent so much time focusing on my career that I forgot to figure out who I was as a person. And now, due to COVID, I have been at home with plenty of time on my hands as I learn to innovate my professional practices. However, I decided this was a great time, oddly enough, to figure out who I am as a person and not as a professional.

What can we do? Here is a list of ways you can approach your own mental health:

Don’t be ashamed - Too long we worry about what everyone thinks about us. Do not be ashamed of having anxiety or issues of mental health.

Breathe - It is amazing how much it helps to just sit back and take in some deep breaths. Yes, it’s much more complicated than that, but taking time to breathe can lead us to making better decisions all day long.

Counseling - Most health-insurance companies cover counseling. There are even virtual sessions that you can schedule. The key to counseling is finding the right fit. You may not feel comfortable with the first person you see. Try to find a counselor that will give you what you truly need. If you need someone who listens, then find someone like that. If you need someone who will push back on you a bit, then find that person.

Read - Recently, Time published a whole journal on mental health. Give it a read. There is a lot of good information in there.

Faith - People find solace in their faith. Use that as a way to find your way through the issues you face.

Connections - Connect with friends who can help take you out of your own head and get you to relax and have fun.

Exercise - Physical activity is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety. Go out for a walk, run, or hike. Fresh air and deep breathing.

Step away from the desk - Teachers and leaders need to give themselves permission to walk away from the computer. Many educators did not really have a vacation this summer. They went directly from the end of pandemic teaching in the spring to the beginning of remote, hybrid, or in-person learning in the fall.

Mindfulness - I know it seems trendy these days to practice mindfulness, and perhaps for some people it is. However, 10 minutes a day or more of sitting and breathing can lead us to making better mental-health decisions all day long.

Take a break from social media - Social media can be great for getting new ideas and connecting with other professionals. However, it can also have the adverse effect and get us to think we are not doing enough in our lives. Envy is a terrible addition to anxiety. Step away from social media from time to time.

Click here for more information from the CDC.

In the End
When people retire after 30 or 35 years on a job, many often struggle with identity. We all work so hard that we have spent most of our lives identifying ourselves by our jobs and not necessarily by who we are as people. Due to the fact that we all worked hard to become teachers and principals, and the pride that most of us feel with it, we typically identify ourselves by those roles.

COVID has been a difficult situation for so many of us. Add in the natural disasters of wild fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes this year, as well as the turmoil surrounding racial justice, and we understand why we want to see the end of 2020. However, this would be a great time to look within and get our anxiety and mental-health issues in check. It would certainly help bring more light to 2021.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.