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A Word to the Wise on Mental Health (An Open Letter)

May 23, 2024

A Word to the Wise on Mental Health (An Open Letter)

I ask you to please be honest and unafraid to say no if you can't manage everything. We want to be team players but our mental health is more important. If you aren't at your best, everyone pays the price. Being open will help you feel less isolated.

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By Jeff Whittle

As an educator for several decades, one thing I have noticed is that almost all educators overwork themselves to the point of self-harm. This can show itself in many ways. I would list them, but I’m sure I would forget some.

So, to mark Mental Health Awareness Month this May, I want to share with you that I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression and low self-worth for most of my life. My anxiety at one point during and after high school was so bad that, if my eyes were open, I would feel tightness in my chest and numbness in my left arm. I went to the doctor many times and medically I was fine. I even developed an eye twitch.

I started working in special education right after high school. I loved my job and students. Still do. I remember confessing to the teacher I worked with about my anxiety. Things were getting worse and I thought it was obvious.

Her reply surprised me. As I was telling her about it, about how the bathroom was a sanctuary for me to center myself, calm my breathing and splash cold water on my face, her reply was, “Jeff, I would never have known.” I now understand why she didn’t see what was going on with me. We are so good at hiding and masking.

As I think about that conversation so long ago, I realize that things did not magically get better just by talking them out. My anxiety did become more manageable over time, but depression and lack of self-worth continued to dog me.

As I opened up about some pretty personal things, there were times when my co-workers would tell me they felt the same way and thought they were the only one.

You Are Not Alone

I started being more honest about my condition. As I opened up about some pretty personal things, there were times when my co-workers would tell me they felt the same way and thought they were the only one. Which is exactly how I felt: that I was alone.

You probably have an inkling of how taxing special education can be. One day I confided that, after work on most days, I need at least 45 minutes of complete downtime. Silent. Exhausted.

The response was, “You do that?” I replied, “Yes, I have to.” My colleague looked relieved and said, “I do the same thing. I thought I was the only one.”

These conversations happened over and over. Not just in my school district, but all over the state and with fellow educators across the country.

Mostly, the conversations would be confidential. When I would talk on Facebook about my ups and downs, some friends would thank me publicly for speaking out, and several would write privately about their struggles.

So many educators are going through so much. They are filled up and overflowing. Yet — and here is the troubling part — they will take on more for their students and school, to their own detriment. How do I know? I did just that for years. Like an addict, I thought, well, if I do this one more thing, it will make everything better.

I suggest that talking to people, allowing vulnerability and not comparing yourself to others can go a long way.

This kind of thinking never stops on its own. It is not helped by the fact that many educators are people-pleasers and can’t say no.

We hear all kinds of advice on how to alleviate our anxiety, depression and low self-worth. We get into nature or yoga. We pile on the hobbies. I ask this question, though: How can we do this when we’re already overloaded?

Instead, I suggest that talking to people, allowing vulnerability and not comparing yourself to others can go a long way. No comparison thinking. You are you. You are unique and fantastic.

Most people show only the best of themselves and share only their best stories. That’s great, but turning the soil over is what promotes growth and health. Although your story won’t be the same as others’ stories, there will be similarities. Sharing means you won’t feel isolated and you won’t have to wear that damn fake plastic mask of joy. Be authentic.

Loosen Your Grip

One piece of advice I often hear is simply to “Let it go.” Easier said than done. Instead of letting it go, the first step is just to loosen your grip. Once when I was struggling with “letting it go,” a friend offered this thought: Before you let go, you have to loosen your grip. Start there. Loosen your grip. My friend is brilliant.

I ask you to please be honest and unafraid to say no if you can’t manage everything.

Let me share a story of how a teenager on the autism spectrum changed me.

I had been struggling for a few days with anxiety and depression. My job performance was fine, but I wasn’t my usual self, laughing and bringing energy. This student walked into my classroom and asked, “Mr. Jeff, what’s wrong?”

Here I thought I had been hiding it so well. I decided to be honest. I answered, “I don’t know.”

His reply was on point. “Mr. Jeff,” he said, with a big, perfect smile, “you have your shoes, don’t you? You’ve got your socks, right?”

I moved the hair from my eyes, smiled back and replied, “You are absolutely right. I do have those things. Thank you.”

I ask you to please be honest and unafraid to say no if you can’t manage everything. We want to be team players but our mental health is more important. If you aren’t at your best, everyone pays the price.

Being open will help you feel less isolated. Have after-school vent sessions at co-workers’ homes. Get it out, be straightforward and say no to joining that new committee or project. It will not be the end of the world, I promise you.

If you can, seek professional help. And if you or someone you know may be in crisis or thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the free Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Also, the free app Momentory is a great tool. Every day, it sends you a reminder to enter three things you are grateful for.

Whenever you’re doubting yourself, take a deep breath, look down at your feet, smile and tell yourself, “I’ve got my shoes.”

Jeff Whittle

About the Author

Jeff Whittle is a special education paraprofessional in Macomb, Mich. He is the former president of the Macomb Intermediate Federation of Paraprofessionals. He serves on the national AFT PSRP program and policy council, is a member of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s education advisory council and belongs to the AFT’s special education cadre. He has served on the AFT Michigan advisory board. He also is a husband and the father of a newly minted high school graduate.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

AFT
The AFT was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are... See More
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