For my Fellow Empaths

Mental health check-in board in my classroom (made by a student!)

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around what all I wanted to say. Finally, here I am. I have been thinking a lot lately about wellness, mental health, and what that looks like for myself and others. I have always considered myself to be a people person, and time and time again I am labeled the same in personality tests as someone who is highly sensitive to others, and just sensitive in general. I am a feeler; I feel things really deeply, I take on the joys, sorrows, and stresses of others, and I have had to work really hard to get to a place in my life where I feel like I am able to manage that in a healthy way. I just want everyone to be okay – for there to be peace and harmony and balance – and it is overwhelming sometimes to know that I can’t control that for anyone but myself. So I comfort myself by doing my little part, and this post is a challenge for you to do the same.

During October, mental health awareness week is observed. We make sure to illuminate this on social media or mention it to people if we hear about it in time, but in my opinion, mental health awareness should just be a way of life. Taking care of ourselves and checking in on those we care about should be something we do on a daily basis. We all deserve to be seen, heard, and reached out to with care. When is the last time you asked your parents, your friends, your significant other, or your colleagues if they are feeling good, if things are going okay for them, or if there is anything they need? When is the last time you asked these same questions of yourself, the person you have to spend the most time with? It doesn’t have to be serious or heavy, but it should be sincere – and my worry is not that people don’t care, but more likely, that people are too busy trying to make it through their own hectic life that they aren’t stopping to ask anyone else if they could use a leg up or a kind few words of encouragement in the process.

In 2017, I saw a documentary and a TED Talk that changed the way I look at everything. I have always been a feeler and a people person, like I said, but for the first time, I finally had my hands on some real science that made everything click. The documentary is called Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope. It illuminates the alarming results of a massive research study conducted in the mid ’90s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. The ACEs study correlated childhood traumas in the home before the 18th birthday to negative health outcomes later in life, and the results were staggering in shining the light on the connection between psychology and physiology. Trauma – real trauma – literally changes our DNA and our body’s stress response system to make us more susceptible to serious health conditions later in life, not to mention the emotional effects. Most importantly for my work as a teacher, trauma can cause serious behavior and learning problems in school, and can make things like ADHD easier to misdiagnose. The accompanying TED Talk that gives a background of the ACEs study and a call to action is linked here by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris – take 15 minutes and watch it when you can. For the last two years, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about the effects of trauma on our adult health and on the developing bodies of children and teens – particularly with a lens to be a better educator and help teen students navigate through levels of anxiety and depression that are higher than ever before. My passion with education has always been the human interactions, the relationships, and the lasting memories from the students in my classroom.

I recently saw a video on Instagram, and you may have seen it by now, too – a coach at a high school embracing a student who came to school with a gun. Due to working in a high school, obviously this possibility lives in the back of my mind at all times, and it is chilling – to say the least. But what a display of absolute heroism and compassion that man showed, simply by giving grace and love instead of potentially escalating the situation into something violent by taking a different approach. In the video, the teenager is clearly unstable, flailing his arms around, shouting and crying, hugging the coach back, pushing him away, hugging him again‚Ķit is clear that he needs help. I’m not saying we have to hug every threat that comes our way, or that we shouldn’t place consequences on behavior that puts the safety of others in jeopardy‚Ķbut something has got to give. The video was a strong example for me of the delicate balance of humanity. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in NC between the ages of 10-17. Yes, you read that right, age TEN to seventeen. We are losing people and we don’t have the resources in place to be able to help them, or to help ourselves when we are run down from trying to carry out the emotional work of educating children. We have compassion fatigue, we have secondary trauma, we have burnout, we have exhaustion. Not to mention, we also have our own stuff to deal with and work through. Wanting to help is not enough. We need action, we need to build resilience, and we need support and resources for when our batteries are too drained to continue to help charge others. This article does a good job of expressing the need for help in dealing with secondary trauma. This one too, for all my teacher friends!

We need more kindness, more grace, more compassion. The world needs to stop blaming others and tearing people down with judgments and passive aggressive remarks. It costs nothing to smile at someone, to check in on someone who seems like they are struggling, or to thank someone for something they did that mattered to you. It is completely free to give someone a break, to put a hand to a shoulder, or to hold someone close when they are crying or on the edge. We have to stop saying people should “suck it up” and “deal with it,” because actually dealing with it looks a lot different than ignoring it and sweeping it under the rug. We have no idea of someone else’s story, and I can say this firsthand through learning things about students’ lives that make my stomach flop and my hair stand on end. The effects of stress and trauma are long-lasting and literally health-damaging. People need to know that they can count on someone, that it’s okay to reach out for help, and that they are not alone on whatever road they’re walking on. It’s daily acts of kindness, love, grace, and compassion – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – that keep people floating instead of drowning. And the more we all practice these things, the kinder the world becomes.

One day, care plans for trauma and ACEs will just be part of our routine screenings/physicals and education plans. This article details Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ plan to implement these changes in education – but it is going to take time, and it is going to take all of us. Mental health awareness isn’t just suicide prevention day, or a week during a month of the year. It is every day, it is lifelong. We all need to be okay, and to know how to start working towards it if we’re not. To know that it’s okay to admit we might need some help – and to know that help will be there if we can take the brave step to ask for it. It’s not huge, grand gestures that make the difference, it is small everyday tasks that can change the course for someone who is struggling. The world already has enough negativity and skepticism. What if we all took a small part in spreading something better around?

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