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Making Mental Health a Priority for School Staff as Well as Students

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Leaders to Learn From honoree Jeff Wellington helped steer the Hamilton Township, N.J., schools through trying times after a series of suicides rocked the community. Years later, he's still focused on making sure the district's schools are welcoming, supportive environments where students and staff can seek help.

In this Q&A, Wellington, the district's supervisor of special projects, offers insight about the importance of acknowledging adverse childhood experiences and how he manages to stave off compassion fatigue.This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Education Week: Why should schools make mental health a priority both for students and employees?

Wellington: We're trying to create both physically and emotionally safe environments, where our kids are comfortable coming to school. If we can be successful with that, we can see our kids, I guess, more or less realizing their potential, being more successful in life over time with that relationship-rich environment, that environment that they feel safe in, physically and emotionally. That's the main focus as to why we're really putting an emphasis on mental health in schools.

It's not just our kids, it's our staff too. Our staff come to school sometimes unready to teach because they're struggling as well, either [with]themselves, or maybe with a family member. When a person has mental illness, often they don't realize it, or they don't know it, or they don't understand the extent of it. And they don't seek treatment. So, I think it's really important to be talking to our students and our staff about mental health and wellness. People, they're often thinking that, "nothing's going to help me," or "I'm never going to get better. This is my life. This is the way it is." But, in fact, people who do seek appropriate treatment often do really well.

Education Week: You encourage staff to focus on and address the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Why is that so important?

Wellington: Kids who have high ACE scores are always feeling like they're on edge or feeling like they're threatened. And that can cause a lot of problems for our kids socially, emotionally, behaviorally here at school. And it definitely affects their ability to learn. That's kind of where the schools come in.

If [teachers] can create a safe environment where there's positive interactions every day with their students, our kids are going to learn. Because when [students are] in that stress mode, when that cortisol is being released, it kind of shuts down the learning parts of the brain. The learning takes place more or less in the prefrontal cortex. And when that cortisol is released, and the amygdala is activated, and we're in that fight-or-flight response, we can't pay attention, we can't focus, we forget things, we can't memorize things, and we don't learn.

Education Week: How do you ensure your own mental health?

Wellington: You're talking about compassion fatigue. Anybody that's working in mental health and then even education nowadays, people need to de-stress. They need to rationally detach from the workplace. For me, family is always my go-to. I always like to spend time with them, but they're active, they're busy. So, sometimes I guess the other way I relax is getting outdoors.

The past couple of years, I started engaging in beekeeping and working with bonsai trees. Learning about bees and how they work and just the intricate details of the hive and that type of thing—It's just very interesting to me. Same thing with the bonsai, just taking care of the bonsai and learning about that process of nurturing that tree and taking care of that tree and just learning about that process interests me. So, I just enjoy things that keep me interested, keep my brain working and thinking maybe off the topic of kids who have struggles with mental illness. You need a break from that sometimes.

Related Reading

Weaving A Mental Health Safety Net

Schools Grapple With Student Depression as Data Show Problem Worsening

Why Principals Need to Make Student Mental Health A Priority

Image Credit: Jeff Wellington, the supervisor of special projects for the Hamilton Township, N.J., schools, works with a group of 2nd graders

--Graeme Sloan/Education Week

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