Post-Pandemic Mental Health: Is Stigma Staying in 2020?

Cait O'ConnorBlog, Teach Happier

TL;DR:

  • To end the mental health stigma, we must provide space to talk about ALL mental health/mental illness without judgment.
  • Mindfulness is only one of the many tools teachers and students can use as a way of fostering emotional regulation.
  • We must recognize the various types of mental illness and normalize the treatment process.

Since March 2020, anxiety has become the norm for many of us.

Even prior to a time of high anxieties, SEL took off as a way of addressing students’ mental health needs. The discussion has increased, as pandemic isolation has led to more uncertainty and loneliness than we’ve known in a century.

Even after public health homeostasis is restored, will it still be okay not to be okay?

I’ve been thinking about this for several months, especially as I’ve seen teachers become more visibly anxious. We’ve always been expected to do more with less. But now, some are teaching multiple modalities, cutting curriculum, and still beating ourselves up for not being our best. (Or is it just me???)

What I’ve thought about as I’ve shared anxieties with other teachers is this: is stigma over, now that even neurotypical people and teachers have felt what it feels like to be anxious, depressed, scared, or unstable? These circumstances aren’t normal for anyone, and for many people with mental health concerns pre-dating lockdown, the chaos is only magnified.

In education, we have only really begun to scratch the surface of the work needed to address mental health. Mental health is now a commodity; one that has yet to be de-stigmatized fully. Click To Tweet

Think about it! SEL, wellness, mindfulness, mental health all have become buzzwords in educational spaces. Endless workshops, Twitter chats, and professional development sessions are available to teachers about mindfulness and mental wellness.

Watching Our Language About Mental Health

What’s going on with the state of mental health in education reflects that in our society. We now have therapist finder apps, meditation, and mindfulness apps. But, these apps are often only fully accessible for a fee (a class issue). People are sharing their journeys on social media with more depth and frequency than ever before.

By extension, this opens up so much dialogue in education. That being said, there is still much to do. Anxiety and depression are arguably the only ‘acceptable’ forms of mental illness there are to talk about. “Bipolar” is used as an adjective. “OCD” is co-opted by people who just really find joy in color-coding their school supplies.

So many people use the language of mental illness inappropriately. And they do so while treating those who experience those illnesses as if they are defective.

With this, it has become ‘cool’ to talk about mental health. But what are we doing beyond hosting PD’s and recommending meditations to each other? Where is the mental health support for teachers on a universal level? When are we going to not only accept but encourage teachers to discuss their experiences, so that they can act as role models of resilience for students?

Teaching students about mental health from a textbook in a single class or a handful of classes isn’t working anymore. Peer storytelling is a successful and evidence-based way to strengthen communities, so people within them can heal and recover. Schools and learning communities are no different.

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Moving Beyond Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become THE tool that we associate with mental health in education and beyond. But it is only one of many tools teachers and students can use as a way of fostering emotional regulation. Mindfulness has become the popular thing. Many people, regardless of stress or neurodiversity, use meditation and mindfulness as a practice.

If you’re already neurotypical, the likelihood of meditation working for you is high; your brain doesn’t have faulty chemicals or wiring to fall back on. Being mindful has even gone so far as to become a compliance or behavioral modification tool in some educational spaces. Mindfulness is useful and can change the brain in a variety of positive ways; but it is not accessible for everyone, and for some, can even be triggering. Mental health strategies are not one-size-fits-all and must be trauma-informed.

What will it take to break the stigma around mental health?

If we seek to end mental health stigma (beyond just anxiety and depression), we also must get comfortable with the illness part. That means recognizing things like mania, dissociation, hyperactivity, suicidality, substance use, and beyond. We must normalize the treatment process, which for some, may involve taking medication, seeing a therapist regularly or even a few times a week, having a sponsor, taking breaks, making lists, repeating tasks, etc.

Mental health at school needs more work because many are still uncomfortable with mental illness. Relentless and sometimes unrealistic optimism has infiltrated our discussion of mental health, reframing it in perpetual positivity and wellness. Doing so makes it seem like being unwell isn’t normal or okay.

If our goal as educators is to put band-aids on mental health crises, we’ve accomplished the mission. If the goal is actually to reduce stigma, we must provide space to talk about ALL mental health/mental illness without judgment.

We have to extend this space to everyone in our communities: teachers, students, parents, administrators, and more. After everyone generally feels okay again, will it still be okay to say “I need a little extra help/time/support”?

I hope that we have learned that being not okay and SAYING you’re not okay, is okay.


About Cait O’Connor

Cait O’Connor is a fourth-year public school English/ESOL educator in New York, committed to social justice and equity in education and beyond.