Instruction & Curriculum

Mental Health Awareness for the Teacher’s Soul

As I begin typing this article, it is 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. In April. It’s a school day but I’m currently sitting at my table in my backyard before a thunderstorm arrives. I’m not at school on this school day in the middle of the week because of- ANXIETY.
I’ve suffered from anxiety for more than ten years. It comes and goes and most days or nights I know how to handle it. I know how to get my heart rate back under control and can more often than not identify the triggers that set it off. My anxiety has become an extension of me. I don’t enjoy it, but I accept it and have worked for years learning how to manage it.
How it Started
Every once in a while, I can’t identify the trigger or get it under control. That happened two days ago which resulted in the second-worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever experienced. Some of you reading this have never experienced anxiety so before I continue, let me walk you through what happened over the past two days. I couldn’t take a deep breath. Deep breathing is one of my strategies to return me to “baseline” and for two days, I couldn’t get a single one in. It felt like someone was squeezing my chest. Then throw in the shooting pains like a knife stabbing me in the middle of my chest as I was trying to get those deep breaths. Some of you might think, “why didn’t you call a doctor?! That sounds really serious”. Well, it is serious, it’s my anxiety.
For two days, it felt like my skin was crawling. Imagine that feeling after you’ve come in from out of a light sprinkle and your skin is dewy and you just want to dry off. That’s how it felt for two days. And that dewiness wouldn’t go away and actually felt like little ants creeping over my skin. Throw in being hyper-sensitive to every single noise to the point where I had to close both of my classroom doors yesterday at school during my lunch because I couldn’t stand hearing the bathroom door open one more time across the hall from me. Add extreme emotions like sadness on top of it when I burst into tears at my desk when my doors were closed thinking about having to pull myself together for the rest of my classes that day.
And then, there were the bathroom trips. I’m sorry, obviously TMI, but it’s part of the fun. My anxiety had ripped me apart from the inside, causing me to toss the dry-erase marker at my co-teacher a number of times during our class to run to the bathroom. When 12:15 on this day after my crying, skin-crawling, shallow breathing, bathroom running self finally starting thinking about it, I debated what I needed to do to be better for myself and my students. I toyed with the idea of taking tomorrow off.
Teacher’s Guilt
I couldn’t think of anything else to do. After exhausting every option in my toolbox to get my anxiety under control, I let the idea quickly pop into my head that maybe I needed to take a “mental health day”. I can’t remember in 11 years of teaching if I’ve ever taken an actual mental health day. The last time I took a sick day was in 2019 because I had strep throat and the doctor actually wrote me out of school.
This year in total, I have taken four personal days off: one for a bathroom remodel that went over the expected two days and three when my father died. I agonized over the idea of taking a day off for myself for my mental health and well-being for two and a half hours. Then, once I decided that it probably was the best course of action, I turned to not one, not two, but three of my friends/colleagues to verify that it’s what I should do and validate my feelings. It wasn’t until I received the “permission” I felt I needed, requested the day in our online sub finder, and created my plans and Google Classroom posts for the next day that I finally settled on the idea that it would be “ok” to take the day.
Taking time off gives me anxiety. Plain and simple. The idea that I am letting down my students who need me or teachers I work with eats at me internally. The sad reality is that I know it’s not just me who feels this way. The fact that taking a day off for mental health/wellness causes such amounts of stress and anxiety says a great deal about our society. We need to stop normalizing working ourselves so hard that we’re having meltdowns at our desks.
At school, I have a friend who has adopted the thought process that she will take the days she needs for her well-being and her family. I envy this so much and one day hopes to have that confidence wear off on me. I even preach that to others! The TAs in my classroom and the teachers with whom I work will talk about feeling bad about having to take a day for this or that. I’m always the first person to say “family first” or “you need to do what’s best for you right now”. If only I could take my own advice.
Mental Health Awareness
May is full of celebrations. The first week of May is teacher appreciation week and there’s National Nurse’s week the second week. May is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, there’s Memorial Day, my husband’s birthday, and our wedding anniversary. The month of May is also a month of awareness for Mental Health.
It’s important for us to recognize that taking care of our own mental health and wellness needs to become a priority before it’s too late. That isn’t meant to be dramatic or fatalistic. Our mental health is just as fragile as our physical health, and as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I could argue that it may be even more fragile as it is not treated with the same urgency.
If I’m sick with the flu, I’m going to stay home. I will probably go to the doctor, then the pharmacy to pick up some over-the-counter medicine that will help me sleep. My friends and co-workers will check in on me to see how I’m feeling and my family will call or stopover with food. No one will give it a second thought or think it’s odd that I am home recuperating from the flu.
If I’m in a severe bout of depression or my anxiety is so out of control that I can’t control my emotions, I’m probably going to go to school. I’m going to use the tools I’ve learned in therapy at my desk during my prep to calm myself or just sludge through my day emotionless. I’m going to see that I have an appointment scheduled with my therapist in two weeks and think that it’s good enough, I don’t really have time to touch base sooner. My friends and co-workers won’t know I’m struggling because I haven’t told them. I haven’t told them because it doesn’t seem important, or because I don’t want to be treated like I’m fragile. Maybe I’ll tell my family, but they don’t suffer from mental health issues so it’s hard for them to understand what I’m going through. No one will give it a second thought that I’m struggling and suffering alone because I go through the motions at school.
I know that second scenario is on me. It becomes the sufferer’s choice to hide their mental illness and it often becomes the easier decision. I feel like taking the time I need to get my mental health under control and back to a good place is my issue that needs to be taken care of on my time. I shouldn’t take a much-needed sub to cover my classes for a day for me to “work through” my stuff at home. If you haven’t stopped reading yet, then here is something I don’t often admit: I. AM. WRONG.
Mental Healthcare
As you know from my introduction, I took the day off. After much deliberating, I “allowed” myself to have the time and space I needed to pull myself back together. I realized that without taking this day, not only would I pay the price but my students would as well. I needed to make sure to be there for myself so I could be there for my students. If I pushed myself to go to school, it was not going to go well for my kids.
Taking care of our mental health needs to become a priority in our profession. Oftentimes it becomes the very last thing we think of because the lesson plans, testing, meetings, clubs, after-school tutoring, and writing IEP’s take up all of our time. I’m convinced what happens is that we are legitimately too busy to even realize that we’re starting on the downward spiral until it’s too late and we have to fight to come up for air.
There’s the common idiom “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. I absolutely understand what this means now. If you don’t allow yourself the time to refill your own cup—your own mental health—you won’t be able to properly give all you need to those around you.
It Wasn’t All Bon-Bons
So, I took the day off, for a mental health day. What did that day look like? What did I decide to do to get myself back to baseline? Whatever I felt like. What worked for me at that moment. I checked in with a few people who encouraged me to “rest and recharge”. Anyone who knows me knows that resting makes me want to crawl the walls. Being active is good for my mental health. Being in control of things is what is good for MY mental health.
My day went as follows: I got up at 6:30 a.m. when my husband got in the shower (which means I slept in a whole extra 45 minutes!) and took care of our dog’s morning routine. I put away the dishes from the dishwasher and threw in my first of two loads of laundry for the day. Made a breakfast that went along with my meal plan for the week- two eggs,1 cup of broccoli, ½ cup of sweet potatoes, and a kiwi. I made myself a mug of tea when I was done and curled up on the couch to watch my beloved Today Show with a blanket and the dog on top of me. We watched until about 9 a.m. when I decided to get up and do my workout. Thirty-seven minutes of heart-pumping, muscle-swelling, sweat-dripping fun later, I switched the laundry and headed outside with Luna to play the in the backyard.
At this point, I had planned on moving my day inside, but it was beautiful out and instead of eating my snack of cottage cheese with raspberries, crackers, and hummus inside, I dragged the backyard table and chairs out of the shed so I could eat outside. I began this article as I sat outside until I had to jump on a CSE meeting for school. I then ate my lunch of a salad with grapes, chicken, and an apple and finished folding the laundry. It was still beautiful outside, so I mowed the front lawn just in time before it started clouding over and it was time to come in. I finished wrapping my husband’s birthday presents and finally decided my body was ready to sit down and read for a little while.
Although this may sound like an awful lot of not relaxing on a day I had taken off to relax, knowing what is good for me and how I work through things is important to my process of controlling my anxiety. Not everyone works the same way. What works for me may not work for you. Perhaps you need to take a day off to simply meditate, take a bath, go get your nails done, or a massage in order to reclaim your mental wellness. The important part is allowing yourself the moment to DO whatever needs to be done to get back to a better space for you.
How It’s Going
I got up at 5:45 a.m. on Thursday ready to go and was excited to get to work, ready to see my kids, and had enjoyed a restful night’s sleep. I came to work at 110% and gave it all to my students. My students and my colleagues noticed a huge change in me. What I thought had just been me not acting like myself for a day or two, my students and co-workers had noticed me not being myself for longer. They were able to see what I was unable to see, and they noticed a significant difference when I had taken the time I needed for myself.
Taking care of your mental health is not selfish. The act of self-care is not selfish (check out my next article for more on self-care for teachers!) We need to embrace the idea that taking care of ourselves needs to be a priority so we can be the best teachers for our students, parents for our kids, partners for our partners, but most importantly, we need to be our best for ourselves. I hope this will be your validation if you need to take that mental health day if you need it. Here is your permission to take a day for you to regroup so you are full and may pour for others.

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