May 29, 2019
You Can’t Claim To Care For Your People and Ignore Their Mental Health
Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, and I wanted to take a minute to reflect on an issue that is incredibly important to me both personally and professionally. And this year, I’d like to reflect on it through the lens of the very people that our work is all about.
EdFuel’s mission is to empower education organizations to recruit and retain high-quality, diverse staff members through comprehensive and equitable talent management systems. We do our teachers, leaders, and staff members – and therefore our students – a fundamental disservice when we fail to recognize that part of creating an equitable and inclusive environment means prioritizing mental health.
The numbers on mental health challenges are staggering. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 43.8 million adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year. Despite such high prevalence, nearly 60% of individuals with a mental illness reportedly did not receive mental health services in the previous year. Actual utilization of mental health services, while low across the board, is far lower for people of color: African American & Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about half the rate of whites in the past year, while Asian Americans utilized services at about one-third of the rate.
HIGH NEED FOR MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
We often talk about mental health support in education through the lens of our students, and for very good reason. My 14-year-old students were among the most brilliant, hilarious, and hard-working kids I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. The reality was also that many were facing tremendous difficulties at home and in the broader world around them due to tremendous barriers imposed on them by their race and socioeconomic status. The impact of systemic racism and generational poverty in this country meant that a great deal of my students had faced more trauma in their short 14 years on the planet than many of us ever will in our lives.
Mental health supports for students are a true imperative. If we actually care about providing students with the means and ability to access the life path they desire, it means that it is our job to recognize and support them in processing the challenges they have faced and will continue to face in this society, particularly given their race and socioeconomic status. While there are many organizations out there tackling this type of work in powerful ways, we also see myriad structural, financial and mindset-based challenges that inhibit us from providing our students with the types of support they need.
OUR TEACHERS, LEADERS AND STAFF DESERVE QUALITY SUPPORT TOO
But mental health support shouldn’t stop with our students. Our teachers and leaders, and other staff members working in schools deserve access to high-quality mental health services to support their wellbeing as people and professionals. Being a teacher was by far the hardest job I have ever had; the immense difficulties of supporting each of your students to succeed academically, socially and emotionally are innumerable: Staying late with a student because grandma can’t pick them up until 7; tutoring a student in the early morning hours before school because they are at a 2nd grade reading level as an 8th grader; covering your colleague’s class during your planning period; grading tests on a Sunday. The work truly never ends – and we need a structural shift in the profession that will allow teachers the time and space (and yes, money) to take care of themselves.
And as is true across the board in our society, those challenges can be even more difficult for teachers, leaders, and staff of color. Generational and systemic racism and structural inequity for people of color in this country – including explicit exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources across centuries and into the present day – has led to more pronounced challenges for people of color regardless of socioeconomic status.
I am aware of the limitations in my own personal understanding as a white woman in this arena and am committed to educating myself in an ongoing manner on these deeply embedded challenges. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I can continue to elevate the voices of people of color around me and also educate myself on the research, which is clear: the implicit and explicit biases in our current healthcare system as well as the inequities that exist in overall access to care (on both the physical and mental health sides) mean that people of color are less likely to receive quality health care services than their white counterparts. In “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”, the authors reference research conducted by the Institute of Medicine, which is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. Their conclusion: “Black Americans and other minority groups suffered health care disparities that resulted in their receiving less effective medical care than did White Americans…even when minority and White patients were matched on socioeconomic status.”
All this is to say – our teachers and leaders deserve access to quality mental health support (in all its forms) and our staff members of color are statistically even less likely to have access to high-quality care. So what do we do? How do we provide this type of support to people doing the hard work of educating our kids and leading our schools each and every day?
HOW DO WE APPROACH THIS?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure I have the answers to the “how”. I’m lucky to be able to work in a flexible environment where taking an hour off work once a week for therapy, or to go to a doctor’s appointment, is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. That is unfortunately not the reality for many of my friends and colleagues working in schools right now, given the lack of flexibility in schedule and at times, the lack of openness around the importance of taking time off for health purposes. When I was teaching, the idea of taking time off for even an annual physical was an ordeal – figuring out who was going to cover my classes, dealing with the pain of creating coverage plans, and facing the reality of a messy classroom upon return was all enough to not even bother submitting the time off request.
And it’s not enough to have room in your schedule and an open culture. There are massive financial barriers that can often stop those seeking access. The reality is that individual therapy is difficult to find and even harder to find the means to pay for. Many providers are in private practice, and while most offer sliding scales, the ability to pay can be an immense barrier for professionals who are already working in an underpaid career field.
I don’t have a perfect answer, truthfully, because providing more room for flexibility requires financial resources to hire additional staff or substitutes. Without a larger investment in the profession from a policy lens, it’s hard to imagine a world where every teacher has the type of flexibility I’m privileged to have in my job.
But I think naming it – and talking about it – is an important first step. If you are a school or organizational leader, it can be as simple as asking your team: how is your mental health? Are you taking care of yourself mentally and physically? What can I do to help you feel as good as you can in this job and in your life?
I’m curious to hear how schools, networks, and districts across the country are approaching this topic: is your organization practicing this work in a way that feels meaningful? Is your manager particularly attuned to these issues? Let us know what your experience as a teacher, leader, or staff member has been. The more we continue to share, the more we eliminate the stigma, learn from one another, and ultimately become happier, healthier people who are better equipped to fully care for our students.