According to NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), on average, 1 in 5 Americans in the general population experience mental illness at some point in their adult life. 1 in 25 experience severe or chronic mental illnesses.
It comes as no surprise that teachers are not an exception regarding this probable average. In fact, due to the stressful nature of the vocation, it is possible that these numbers are a little low.
In other words, teachers are likely working while also dealing with mental illnesses.
Some families might be surprised to learn that, and many may feel downright uncomfortable with the thought, but teachers need to be able to talk about their mental health in realistic terms and not be shunned or silenced by the possibility of discrimination due to mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses are so taboo, in fact, that many teachers go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are struggling. This concealment often aggravates symptoms, creating a much bigger problem because the individual cannot deal with his or her illness openly. Mental illnesses are highly misunderstood, and the first step to embracing mental health among educators is ironically to become more educated about common mental illnesses.
Clarifying “Mental Illness” for Those Not Personally Affected
Mental illnesses can be short-lived or life-long. They vary from fairly typical illnesses like depression and anxiety to more serious and rarer disorders like schizophrenia and o.c.d. (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
People experiencing mental illness need to seek and receive professional treatment. They need to be able to seek and receive support from their community just as patients with physical illnesses do.
Seeing an illness doesn’t validate it, nor is the inability to see an illness an invalidation.
Just as you would care for a colleague with cancer or someone who’s having surgery on a broken limb, schools should offer support and care for colleagues with mental illnesses.
A person who has a mental illness can still teach, be an active member of society, and care for students. They are still a vital part of the community. When they are symptomatic, they should still be respected as individuals and heard. They should be supported, not ostracized. Rather than removing them from their community, the community should offer acceptance and compassion
In fact, in addition to being able to disclose their mental illness without judgment to their community, having a routine and continuing in that routine can be soothing.
Continuing to do every-day things can be extremely helpful for someone experiencing any sort of illness, although there will certainly be days they are unable to complete every task. They may need support just as one would offer a physically ill colleague. However, allowing them to continue doing what they are able, unhindered, is often the best way to support them.
In addition, just as people with physical illnesses need various types of support based on their individual illness and who they are as a person, people with mental illnesses vary in their personal needs.
Sometimes, a person with a mental illness is just so overwhelmed by the illness itself that they aren’t sure what they need. Just being willing to temporarily accommodate a colleague and offer compassion and understanding is meaningful. When they know what they need, they are far more likely to approach you if you’ve created a safe space for them relationally.
Here are some tips to working while ill and how to responsibly plan particularly difficult times.
Many people refuse to seek treatment for possible mental illnesses due to the social stigmas and misunderstandings surrounding them - that is an issue for people in general and not something that only effects teachers. Unfortunately, without treatment, many mental illnesses get worse and can begin to affect physical health and other areas of life.
Don’t put off finding treatment if you think you’re dealing with a mental illness.
Many people are afraid to talk to their doctor about depression or anxiety because they fear they’ll be put on strong medications for the rest of their lives. The truth is that many doctors are eager to help their patients make a plan for mental as well as physical health. One of those aspects may be medication, but doctors are very good about understanding that people may not want to take medications for emotional issues.
Diet, exercise, and social aspects of life are just as important for mental health, and any good doctor will help you make an informed decision about what’s right for you. No one will force you to take medications you do not want (if they do, get a second opinion).
Many doctors will gladly refer you to counselors or other mental health experts in your area, as well.
Often, people feel self-conscious when considering seeking professional counseling or mental health, but seeing a counselor can be incredibly helpful. You should shop around, speaking to several counselors in your area before deciding on one. A counseling relationship is very similar to the relationship you have with medical professionals. You want to be sure you’re seeing someone with whom you feel comfortable talking.
It’s so helpful to have an impartial “outside” helper who can listen to you and help you as you make your way through a particularly difficult part of your life’s journey. In fact, many mental health advocates say not to wait until you are dealing with a mental illness. Finding a counselor to talk to about your experiences is an excellent way to be proactive about your mental health.
Truthfully, because teaching is such a stressful, demanding, emotional, and “caring” profession, it would be helpful if all teachers had counselors. Ideally, that relationship would be encouraged and welcomed by districts rather than stigmatized.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Because routines and structure can offer such relief to someone experiencing a mental illness, carefully consider ways that you can create routines, organizational systems, and incorporate classroom management so that if you find yourself in the midst of a “flare-up” or illness (either kind), you’ll be able to lean on those structures to help you succeed.
If you already know you have a chronic mental illness, plan for those days you will not be in excellent shape. Creating systems that allow you to just show up and monitor on days that you’re depleted of mental strength can save you on those difficult days.
As much as possible, teach your students how to help you manage things like materials, day-to-day routines, and housekeeping. When you are well enough to do it all on your own, set things up for those days you won’t be. Allow the students to get used to taking on responsibilities that are appropriate for you to share so that when you need to, you can just “be there”.
Teach those routines, and reteach throughout the year when you see they need maintenance. Praise students for their contribution, and thank them for their help.
If you know that you are unable to do certain activities when you are feeling depressed or anxious, set up some alternative activities “just in case”. Some people are really bothered by mess, for example, and if they’re feeling particularly anxious (having a flare-up of their anxiety) on a day with a very messy activity on top of some external factor (fire drills, grandparent’s day, etc…), that messy activity may need to be swapped out for something equally educational but a lot more “low key”.
Or if you tend to be depressed every February, and you’re teaching about life cycles, and every year you talk about death for a week, find a way to switch that around. Don’t approach topics that are triggers on days you just can’t handle it. Give yourself a way out of those situations before they even occur. You’ll be thankful you did, even if you end up not needing to enact your “backup plan”.
When you are in the midst of a flare-up, lean into those routines you’ve created. Allow the moments you enjoy most in teaching to happen for longer amounts of time. Make time and space for joy and peace to grow. Those comforting moments (like in the five minutes after the bell rings when you’re taking attendance, so everyone is working quietly and independently) are really helpful. Look for them throughout the day.
Also, when you’re feeling extra sensitive, your physical senses may seem to betray you. Be sure you get plenty of rest. Drink more water, and limit yourself. Pamper yourself like you would if you had a cold or the flu. Don’t overexert yourself.
Turn off some of those harsh overhead fluorescent lights and use a softer lamp light or light from windows (if you have them) during class. If noises bother you, wear discreet earplugs so you can still hear everything, but the harshness is buffered a little. Even wearing softer, comfortable clothes, keeping something that smells nice near you, or keeping a stash of small treats to eat or drink on rough days can be beneficial
Treat yourself with compassion and respect on tough days.
Pros and Cons of Disclosing a Mental Illness
As we’ve discussed, many people are judgemental of those who struggle with mental illness because of a lack of real understanding or personal experience. Sharing with your colleagues when you are facing a particularly difficult time with a mental illness can, unfortunately, make your career much more challenging.
It is not legal for someone to fire you based on mental illness, nor is it acceptable for someone to treat you poorly; however, it is much more common to experience unfairness due to mental illness than it is for someone who is physically ill because of the lack of understanding.
Be wise and cautious about who you share your struggles with, and when you aren’t sure you are comfortable enough to discuss your condition, don’t. You can always share what’s going on with you at some later date, but once the information is out, there’s no undoing that. While we’d all like to believe the people around us are mature enough to be supportive and understanding, the difficult reality is that not all people are ready for that level of truth.
However, if you and your team or your principal have discussed mental illnesses in general and you’ve found them to be understanding and supportive, you may want to open up about your own condition.
If you choose to disclose information about your own mental illness, wait until you are doing well. Talk it over with your doctor or therapist. You might even practice what you’ll say to your colleagues before you actually approach a conversation about it.
In many cases, people find that it is helpful for other people to know that they are struggling. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a flare-up, because that gives them much less time to interact with facts and a lot more exposure to the difficult side of mental illness. Share your struggles when you are symptom-free or close to it so you can be the best mental health advocate possible for yourself.
When sharing with others, be factual about your diagnosis, which symptoms you experience, and how they may eaffect others around you. Let them know that you’re working to keep your symptoms from interfering with your job if you are, and answer questions.
People who’ve never experienced open conversations about mental health sometimes say or do hurtful things because they don’t know better. Be careful to correct misinformation and gently, but firmly, require respect in communicating about mental illness. This may be someone’s only opportunity to learn more.
It’s unfortunate that at this time in history, those who struggle with mental illness are often called upon to advocate so strongly for themselves, but it is very important that we do spread the word that mental illnesses do not make people threatening. Mental illness does not transform a good teacher into a bad teacher. It’s just a part of life - a much more common part of life than most people realize.
All in all, operate with self-compassion and kindness. You are not your diagnosis. You are a person who happens to have a diagnosis. It doesn’t have to be the thing that defines you.