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NEA News

Aspiring Educators: Protect Your Mental Health

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the NEA Aspiring Educators program set up a series of activities and events to help future educators find the time to address and take care of their mental health.
teacher mental health
Published: 05/26/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Many colleges and universities have on-campus health clinics and counseling offices that offer services for dealing with everyday concerns--and more services are needed.
  2. While stigmas surrounding mental illness has been slowly decreasing, finding balance is a group effort that includes assessing your school's organizational structures.
  3. If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, contact the National Alliance on Mental Health Information Help Line at 800-950-6264, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.– 8p.m., ET, or by email at [email protected].

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while it’s coming to an end, the work toward better mental health and well-being continues—especially for aspiring educators who may at times find themselves overwhelmed, overworked, and overtired from balancing exams, schoolwork, student teaching, and life in general.

NEA’s Aspiring Educators (AE) program, in partnership with the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH), at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, started the month with a week-long series of activities, resources, and events to help future educators find the time to address and take care of their mental health.

"Everyone saw the pandemic’s effect on mental health, particularly on educators." says Cameo Kendrick, chair of the AE program. “The incoming generation of educators and NEA members carried class loads, life responsibilities, along with new changes to daily life at every turn. We wanted to create a week of learning and support for better mental health.”

She adds, “In this, we capitalized self-care, strategies, resources and mental health awareness for ourselves and our future students, with the coinciding need for Aspiring Ed members to engage and lead in the advocacy work for real change to a system that piles more stress and responsibilities onto educators and students’ plates but has yet to provide the respect and supports public education in America so deeply deserves."

In a brief session dubbed, “Self-Care, University Edition,” three AE members, for example, share their best organizational resources and tips to help bring some order to disorder. Another helpful resource is the “Mental Health Support: Guidance for Aspiring Educators,” which centers on the different needs of aspiring educators—from suicide prevention to resources for LGBTQ+ young people—and how they can find support.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ people experience alarmingly high rates of mental health challenges that are largely due to stigma, discrimination, and bias. Couple this with gaps in receiving adequate health care and health insurance coverage and it worsens the mental health challenges LGBTQ+ people face.

Many colleges and universities have on-campus health clinics and counseling offices that offer services for dealing with everyday concerns such as relationship conflicts, adjusting to college and academic issues. On-campus resources are a good place to start when you first develop a mental health problem, but they probably won’t be able to provide long-term help. However, counselors can help you find a long-term therapist or doctor in the community.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, several LGBTQ+ inclusive organizations can provide support, such as (*Not LGBTQ-specific but LGBTQ-inclusive):

In addition to finding guidance and resources, the week’s activities stress the importance of learning the signs of mental illness.

Warning Signs

Mental health problems show up differently in different people, but there are some things to look out for, according to Sharon Hoover, a psychologist and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and co-director of the NCSMH. She says, “Some of these things may manifest as sematic, [and] may reflect mental health concerns”:

  • Changes to your physical health.
  • Getting more headaches or stomach aches.
  • Experiencing sleepless nights or are having difficulty concentrating.
  • Loss of interest in personal and professional life, such as not wanting to get out of bed or being unable to find a sense of joy or purpose in your work.

For young people, it’s especially important to pay extra attention to the signs. Hoover says that the late teenage years and the early 20s are often a time for the onset of mental illness, and that can include depression and anxiety, but it may also involve psychosis, a mental disorder described as a disconnection from reality.

The average onset in psychosis is between that 18- to 25-year-old range, and “this is something that’s unique to that college age range, where we see most of the first episodes of psychosis,” Hoover, explains. “It’s really important that if people are experiencing any signs of psychosis, which can be brought about by increased stressed, that they seek help.”

Symptoms of psychosis may include difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, sleeping too much or not enough, withdrawal from family and friends, delusions, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts or actions.

Reduction in Stigma

In a recent NEA School Me podcast, Larrissa Lloyd, an aspiring educator in Kentucky, shared her personal mental health journey on air.

“It’s not something I shy [away from]. I’m not going to be the person who hides my mental illnesses in a dark corner and never speaks of them—that’s not who I am,” said Lloyd, who goes to explain her suicide attempt in 2013. “After I had my stay in the hospital and got better, I told myself: ‘this is not the end of my story. I’m going to start fighting back.’”

Fighting back, in part, means to openly talk about mental health challenges. In some respect, COVID-19 has helped move the conversation along. Supporting this claim is direct policy and practice in different areas of education.

“We’re seeing at universities, for example, increased forums for people to talk about mental health impact [and] professors receiving training on mental health literacy in the classroom and how to support your students. So, there’s more efforts that would lead to a stigma reduction,” says Hoover.

Listen to the School Me Podcast:

Find Balance

While it may feel like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done, it’s important to learn how to center yourself.

Lindsay Thompson, a high school English language and literature teacher in Fort Osage, Mo., suggests setting boundaries—and sticking to them.

“As an educator, working long work weeks and often weekends come with the territory,” says Thompson. “However, it’s easy to let working during non-school hours get out of hand and slip into becoming a workaholic. To prevent this, set boundaries…for when you will stop working every night and the hours you work on the weekends.”

In addition to the usual practices to help manage stress, such as exercising, connecting with friends, and getting enough sleep, is to “remind yourself that not everything is on you,” Thompson says, “and there are people around you that want to help.”

Sharon Hoover of the National Center for School Mental Health says to look at your school’s organizational structures that support everyone’s well-being. (This applies to K-12 schools, too.)

“What do you do if you land in a school and it's a toxic environment?  You can't self-care yourself away out of that environment,” says Hoover, referring to a K-12 setting but can be applied at the university level. “There is some strategy that educators can learn to assess their organizational well- being and even make changes from more of an advocacy perspective within the organization. We can’t just keep layering on to the teachers.”

Authors of a 2021 report called, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Wellbeing in Higher Education: Supporting the Whole Student, underscore that colleges and universities need to go beyond campus counseling centers to include all campus sectors, such as institutional leaders, faculty, staff, and students themselves, who can play a bigger role.

“What we are asking is that institutions look at themselves and ask whether there are things in their environment that contribute to the stresses and mental health problems that students are experiencing,” said Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and co-author of the report.

Seek Help

If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, contact the National Alliance on Mental Health Information Help Line at 800-950-6264, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.– 8p.m., ET, or by email at [email protected]. A trained representative will then respond to your email when we return to the office. If you are in an emergency call 911 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Offered in partnership with Sanvello Health, the NEA Mental Health Program is designed to give NEA members on-demand, confidential access to help manage stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional health challenges so you can feel happier over time. As part of your NEA membership, you can get access to Sanvello’s Premium subscription for 30 days – and a 25% discount after that. You also can receive a 10% discount on one-on-one coaching support and anonymous group video sessions. Find out more about this benefit available through NEA Member Benefits.

Educator well-being is a critical part of comprehensive school mental health systems (CSMHS). For more information about CSMHS, please see Advancing Comprehensive School Mental Health Systems: Guidance from the Field. Support for this project was provided by the Bainum Family Foundation. The views expressed in this document do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.