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What I Wish Educators Knew About Mental Health

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What specific topics about mental health should secondary educators know? What do you wish they knew?

Because this question is so importantan Education Week Research Center survey found that a vast majority of teachers and district leaders are concerned about students receiving mental- health services while schools are closed—I emailed this question to my husband's uncle, Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 

Here is Ken's reply:

For many of us, there's a mental-health dimension to this pandemic. Anxiety and uncertainty go hand in hand, and the COVID-19 crisis is the perfect storm of uncertainty.

As all educators know, kids are excellent at picking up on adult emotions. It's OK to acknowledge the stress you're feeling because they may be feeling the same way. It's important for everyone, educators and students alike, to hear that it's OK to not be OK, and most importantly that you are not alone. 

For educators, maintaining your own mental health is key to your ability to teach, and it's also a chance to be a role model for your students. If you are experiencing anxiety, there are steps you can take, like a daily routine of light physical exercise and deep breathing. Both of these habits help calm the body and promote sleep. 

How we think about our anxious thoughts also matters. One way to limit negative self-talk is to keep what is happening (e.g., "This is bad") from defining your sense of self (e.g., "I am bad"). If anxiety is getting in the way of day-to-day functioning, then it is worth seeking professional help.  

For kids who may have a mental-health vulnerability, NAMI offers a free, evidence-based six-session course for parents and teachers. Learn more here and for the online version, sign up here: Basics.NAMI.org

Reading Ken's advice reminds me of a letter I mailed to Dear Abby decades ago. I was 18 or 19 years old, and though I can't remember the details, I know I was unhappy and, on top of that, feeling guilty for feeling that way. The short typed letter I received a few days later said, in effect, that I should see a therapist. 

At the time, I was disappointed not to get a longer reply, ideally with a pat solution for my woes. Now, I realize that it was excellent advice after all. Mental health is as important as physical health, and the support of a good therapist goes a long way toward helping us understand that it's OK not to be OK, and that there are strategies for feeling better. 

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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