Self-care is a key part of the mental health conversation
Lisa Everitt, ATA Executive Staff Officer
I delivered the presentation entitled “Compassion Fatigue, Teacher Burnout and Emotional Labour“ at the teachers’ convention mentioned in the above article, so when the question was asked “Where do we go to find information about mental health support?” I was the one who fielded it.
As a long-serving staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I had worked in the area of teacher benefits, including benefits plan design and assisting teachers and school leaders to access resources when facing mental health challenges. The quick answer to the above question was to visit ASEBP’s website or the My ASEBP app to find the needed information. However, as I was giving this response, I knew I wasn’t providing the entire picture.
I pondered the question later that day while walking my dog. I realized that, in my time in the teaching profession, now in its 27th year, I had never really experienced an organizational conversation around teacher mental health as it related to my own well-being as a teacher. Yes, in my professional role as a staff officer with the Association, I’d had numerous conversations about the importance of teacher and school leader mental health, but these conversations were always focused on helping those who were experiencing mental health challenges rather than strategies for self-care that everyone could employ to foster and maintain good mental health. It occurred to me that, in my own professional life, strategies for self-care were not discussed very openly, and when they were mentioned, it was not a high priority organizationally — there was always something more important.
The teaching profession is built around developing caring relationships with students and their families. Relational approaches require emotional labour and, therefore, teachers and school leaders are inherently at more risk for exposure to mental health challenges. Through a compassion fatigue study we’re conducting in partnership with ASEBP and the University of Calgary, the Association is learning more about the effects that education workers experience as a result of their emotional labour.
Our research has affirmed that teachers and school leaders work in complex school environments and are diligent about supporting students and families in their communities. It is a complex and challenging profession that focuses on helping others. As such, if teachers or school leaders begin to suffer in their mental health, they simply “chin up” and get on with it. By the time a teacher or school leader realizes they need support for their mental health, as the author above pointed out, it is often a solitary and confusing journey to figure out what resources might be available.
When considering the question “where do we go to find information about mental health support,” I wondered if part of the answer is simply recognizing and acknowledging that it is normal to face mental health challenges as teachers and school leaders. After all, the phase one report of our study, Compassion Fatigue, Emotional Labour, and Educator Burnout, indicates that educators should plan to face mental health challenges over the course of their careers as a result of the emotional labour they provide.
Statistics Canada reported on the state of Canadians’ mental health in late 2020 and found that all Canadians were experiencing a decline in mental health since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that mental health is a challenge for many people at this time, the COVID-19 pandemic may be a perfect opportunity to say to each other, “you matter, your mental health matters and here is where you might go to get help.”
Perhaps this is a message we should consider starting off with at the beginning of every school year. Imagine taking the time at the first staff meetings of the year to do mental health self-care plans and, within those plans, identify resources and strategies available to help with mental health.
However, one proviso should be observed in this conversation at school. Opening the conversation about maintaining positive mental health among school staff does not mean that staff members should feel compelled to disclose the nature of their own mental health challenges. This is intensely personal, and it is important to protect your medical privacy at work. There is also still considerable stigma around mental illness societally; there is work to be done to bring the issue of mental health out of the dark.
Talking at work about strategies for mental health can bring focus to this important issue, help school staff identify potential resources and help convey a message that mental health matters for everyone. It is my sincere hope that creating self-care plans at the beginning of each year will allow teachers to identify the resources that will help them to protect and maintain good mental health. ❚