The best way to speak to your instructor buddies about psychological well being
Knowing how to talk about mental health is difficult in the best of circumstances. Recently, however, we have faced all the usual stressors for teachers amid an ongoing pandemic. People are polarized and angry and exhausted. It’s a hard time being a teacher.
So how do we approach a fellow teacher when we see him struggling? It can feel too pushy and personal, but it can also be one of the most important conversations we can have. With that in mind, here are ten ways to talk about mental health if you don’t know where to start.
1. It’s okay to start small talk
Even if they’re a friend, talking to someone about their mental health can be nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the easiest way to start is with some small talk. Not many people will open up right away, so find a time when you can chat for more than just a minute or two. Start with the basics: “How are you?” and “How’s your year going so far?” From there, you can ask more specific questions. Your colleague is more likely to share once the conversation is underway.
2. Ask for something specific
Try to name a specific topic that your colleague has been dealing with recently. Question: “Hey, I wanted to ask you how have you been since your youngest boy left college?” will likely deliver a lot more than just asking about their mental health. It also shows that you recognize situations in your life that may be causing you stress.
3. Avoid “mental health” when it feels stressed
The term “mental health” can make people uncomfortable. If you feel that communication is being broken, try a different approach. A simple “How was your stress this year?” Instead of “Have you been feeling stressed or anxious lately?” Can reassure some people. Remember, you are trying to show your friend that you care and are concerned rather than diagnosing them during a brief conversation in the staff room.
4. Make sure you are listening more than you are talking
Many of us talk too much when we’re nervous or when we really care about something. Prepare to speak less during this conversation. If your colleague opens up to you, support them by actively listening to them. They are not there to diagnose or share stories about “who is more stressed”.
5. Ask about activities rather than feelings
Teacher mental health is a deeply personal issue. Many people will not feel comfortable exposing their anxiety and depression to others, let alone a colleague. Focus your conversation on activity rather than emotions. On topics such as slept well, whether they ate, whether they have difficulty keeping up with the grading (more than usual!)
6. Offer to help with small, specific tasks
Your friend may shake off initial discussions about their mental health. You may not be ready to discuss them with others, or they may not even be aware of how visible their behavior is to others. You can’t force someone to deal with their mental health problems, but you can try to help with some of the tasks that could be causing stress or anxiety. Offer to make copies for them when you go to the copier, pick up their mail when you grab yours, let them know you have coffee every Wednesday and would like to get one for them too. Small gestures of kindness go a long way. Let your fellow teacher know that you are serious about your concern, but don’t push them to discuss it until they are ready.
It’s important to note here that you should be careful when helping others if you feel overwhelmed by yourself. Be fair to them (and yourself!) By being honest about how much you can realistically do.
7. Do not be offended if you are turned away
Some people have been taught that battling depression or anxiety is a weakness. Many people feel they should “cure” it quietly and privately. Others may be embarrassed that you even noticed anything. Prepare if your colleague doesn’t want to talk to you about it just yet, if at all. When that happens just let them know that you care about them, that they are a great teacher, and that you are there for them if they ever need you. Sometimes that’s all a person needs to hear.
8. Be discreet about your concerns
Teachers tend to be associates. We survive the challenges of our job by letting out on trusted colleagues and laughing with friends at the incredible things that happen in our rooms. However, teachers’ mental health problems should never be discussed with anyone other than the person himself. Your concern means very little if you give private information to others without permission. Show your friend that you can be trusted with their private problems by refraining from discussing them with others.
9. Accept that you may not know what is best
Your colleague may be acting unusual. You could be fighting visibly. You may have a strong feeling that you need to speak to a therapist, take medication, or seek other help. That being said, they may not see things the same way. Maybe they’re going through a rock bottom but feel like they’re coming out in one piece. Maybe they are already looking for help and don’t feel like sharing this information with you. Accept that you may not leave the conversation feeling like you have accomplished much of everything. It is enough to show that you care about them and let them know that you are there for them. In fact, it is probably more than anyone else has done.
10. Treat her as always
After you’ve had the conversation, thank your friend for your trust (even if they didn’t say much) and let them know that you are there for them if they ever want to talk more, need a favor, or even need help to find more support. After that, be diligent in dealing with your friend in a typical manner. Nobody wants someone to hover around them all the time asking if they are okay. Check in every now and then, but keep it easy and friendly.