Helping a Friend Through Depression: A Memorable Day During a Bout of Major Depression

As an advocate around mental health and, particularly, depression, I often get asked the question of how one can support a friend or family member who is struggling with depression. Actually, I had no idea how to answer that question when I was in the midst of my own major depression.

I had invited two of my best friends to my house the night before I checked myself into a partial hospitalization program in order to let them know what was going on with me…and to request their support. Of course they asked, “What can we do to support you?” While I really didn’t know a good answer, I asked them to check in with me via texts once in awhile. I also asked them to invite me out for a coffee, alone, without a group of friends, now and then. My last suggestion was to ask one of them to reach out to an acquaintance of his who worked with men and depression and to ask him how they could support me.

My wife wanted to help me. She, too, asked, “How can I help you?” I really didn’t know what she could do for me. I asked her to join me at a therapy session or two, which she did. This was comforting to me, although I’m not so sure how much it supported her in helping me.

One of my most memorable times in which a friend helped me out happened to be on a bitter cold Minnesota day. My friend, Dan (one of the two I had mentioned earlier in this post), called me up and said, “Get dressed, I’m coming over and we’re going out with our cameras”. He arrived to my house and, as is common for many when clinically depressed, I made as many excuses as I could to stay inside the house and on the couch. He persisted. He even brought some extra, warm clothes for me in order to eliminate the lack of warm clothes as a possible excuse. Dan happens to be a professional photographer and, as a very close friend, he knew of my passion for photography, as well. We’d been out to shoot on several occasions prior to this.

We geared up, long-johns, Sorrel boots, hats, gloves, wool socks, the works! The weather was frigid. I trudged my way from my house door to his car, feeling that my body movements were slow and heavy due to the depression. As close friends often are, I was comfortable with Dan and knew that I could be silent, sad, or simply emotionally numb and he wouldn’t judge me for it. He drove the mile or so to the Mississippi River. We got out, each with a camera in hand, and made our way to the slow moving, nearly completely frozen river. The air was incredibly crisp and sun was shining brightly. It was actually a beautiful day and the frigid temperature actually, in some odd way, was refreshing and even invigorating.

I still remember that day like it was yesterday. We walked up and down the banks of the river exploring through the lenses of our cameras. The reflection of the sun off of the ice and water was just beautiful. It allowed me to get outside of my head (and out of my house), even if just for a short couple of hours. I got exercise, I had social contact with a trusted friend, I had fresh air, and I was able to enjoy one of my hobbies for which I had lost interest in during my depression.

Was I cured from my depression? Absolutely not. Did it give me a glimmer of hope that is so crucial to recovering from a major depressive episode? Absolutely! Lessons learned: Ask for help, accept help, use every ounce of effort possible (dig deep) to find any bit of energy to do something!

As with all of my posts, I encourage and welcome comments!

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 3.09.04 PM 2

My friend, Dan, at the Mississippi River on the frigid day described above.

Guest Post: 7 Mental Health Podcasts You Should Check Out!

I was really excited to see that a guest from my podcast, Charles Minguez, included my podcast, The Depression Files, in his post regarding seven mental health podcasts to check out! With his permission, I’ve included the post here in my blog. You can find Charles’ bio and a link to this original post at the bottom of the page. Thank you, Charles!

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 8.11.48 PMIn an age where information is available to us with a simple touch or click of a button, we can easily connect and learn from others through the wonderful world of podcasts. Have you subscribed to these mental health podcasts?

In the past, I’ve written about how our phones can control our lives. I’ve even confessed to you my addiction to social media. However, the supercomputers we carry around with us don’t have to be disruptive to our health. They can contribute to cultivating robust mental health.

Check out these seven mental health podcasts

Anxiety Slayer | 4.5 Stars
Created in 2009 by Shann Vander Leek and Ananga Sivyer, Anxiety Slayer is more than just a podcast. The dynamic duo of Shann and Ananga offer content to combat anxiety in the form of the podcast, best-selling books, and even music.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Happier with Gretchen Rubin | 5 Stars
I first heard of Gretchen Rubin from another podcast, Live Inspired, but you may recognize her name from an interview with Oprah. Gretchen is also the best-selling author of three books including, The Happiness Project.

In the Happier podcast, Gretchen along with her co-host and sister Elizabeth Craft discuss happiness and good habits.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Happy Place | 5 Stars
Happy Place is a continuation of Fearne Cotton’s book, Happy. Fearne pulls from her own experiences of both happy and not-so-happy times. She also interviews inspiring guests and shares advice from experts giving listeners both hope and steps to work through the blues.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Mentally Yours | 4 Stars
According to co-hosts Ellen C. Scott and Yvette Caster, Mentally Yours, “is a weekly mental health podcast where we chat with guests about their brains and stuff.” This podcast is a fun and refreshing look at the world of mental health issues.

Listen or Subscribe Here

Terrible, Thanks for Asking | 5 Stars
Wow has Nora McInerny been through a lot! A few years ago, and in a matter of months, she lost a child, her father, and husband. Nora has written two books about her experiences, “No Happy Endings” and “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too)”.

The podcast isn’t all about McInerny, however. In the series, she asks others to open up about all the uncomfortable stuff, to get honest about what they’ve been through and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Listen or Subscribe Here

The Depression Files | 5 Stars
Al Levin has been working in public education for over twenty years. He also has recovered from a major depressive disorder. Using his education experience as well as his experience with mental illness, Al created the Depression Files to educate, inspire hope, and to help minimize the stigma around mental illness.

Even though the Depression Files focuses on interviewing men who have dealt with mental health issues, there is valuable information in each interview for all people.

Listen or Subscribe Here

The Shek Check | Brand New!
I first learned of Erez Shek after seeing a video he posted about bipolar disorder on Twitter. It was immediately apparent that Erez was on a mission to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The Shek Check, which begun as a YouTube series is now a Podcast where Erez continues the mental health conversation with a combination of inspiring monologue and guest interviews.

Listen or Subscribe Here

About Charles Minguez: Charles is practicing Buddhist and meditation teacher sharing his experiences fighting depression to give you hope that you can fight it too! Learn more at or follow on Twitter at @charlesminguezYou can also hear my interview with Charles on “The Depression Files” by clicking here.

Suicide is NOT Selfish

Let me be crystal clear: Suicide is NOT a selfish act. It is not an attention-seeking act. Anybody who says differently is perpetuating a very dangerous misunderstanding.

I have heard many stories in which someone stated that they would never take their own life because of their family, yet they end up dying by suicide. After having been in an incredibly deep, dark place of major depression, a place in which I did not feel myself and was not thinking logically because of the illness, I have a much greater understanding of how one may tragically come to end their life.

Conversely, I can understand how one who loved someone who died by suicide may feel as though the act was selfish. I would imagine there may be deep feelings of anger by a loved survivor of one who died by suicide. This is typical of the normal grieving process and I would imagine one’s anger is exacerbated when grieving the loss of loved one who died by suicide. I also believe it would be normal to wonder, “Didn’t the person consider me or our family when they decided to take their own life”, thus eliciting the feeling that the person who died by suicide must have been selfish for not even thinking of how the act would impact me/our family.

As a person who had four young children (between the ages of two and seven) when I had planned my suicide, I can attest to the fact that I had not developed a plan out of selfishness. I truly believed that I had become such a burden to my family that they would be better off without me. I no longer believed that I was a competent employee, father, or husband. I was going through an incredible amount of indescribable pain. The depression had become excruciatingly debilitating. Other than uncontrollable crying bouts at night, I was emotionless throughout the days. I was numb to all feelings. I could no longer read expressively to my kids or find joy in playing with them. I could no longer take care of the easiest of chores at the house. Every small task at work felt like a new summit had been placed on top of the peak of a mountain of responsibilities. I felt deeply helpless and hopeless. I did not intentionally develop a plan for suicide. The thought came into my head, I would push it away, and it would be back in my head less than an hour later. I couldn’t stop the thought from coming to my mind. One evening, I dreamed of going through with the plan. This dream scared the hell out me and was the impetus for me to urge my wife and sister to join me for an urgent appointment with my psychiatric physician’s assistant (PA) to advocate for more support.

I was very thankful they were with me, as it took their insistence to finally convince this PA that I needed something more. I made the difficult, yet lifesaving, decision to leave work for three weeks in order to check myself into a partial hospitalization program.

As I was on the verge of acting out a plan of suicide, it was not based on selfishness whatsoever. It was the pain of the debilitating depression and not knowing if or when I would ever get better.

Friends and loved ones need to somehow provide those who are suffering with a sense of hope. Suicide is not the answer.

As with all of my posts, comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Guest Post: PTSD & Cancer

The following is a Guest Post from a fellow advocate of mine. Bob McEachern is an advocate for Follicular Lymphoma. You can find much more of his writing on his own very popular blog “Lympho Bob”. In this post, he describes how one going through cancer may likely face symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This topic interested me greatly, as I have met advocates of many different chronic illnesses and have often wondered how receiving the diagnosis of a chronic illness and living with a chronic illness may impact one’s mental health. I now have a first-hand description.

 

 

PTSD and Cancer

Recently, a friend posted a link on Twitter. Like me, she’s a cancer survivor – breast cancer for her, Follicular Lymphoma for me.

The link was for a study of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) in cancer patients. The researchers began with a simple assumption – that a cancer diagnosis is a traumatic event (I’d say that’s a good assumption). They interviewed patients when they were diagnosed (their exposure to the trauma), and then again at 6 months and at 4 years after diagnosis. The interviews focused on their possible PTSD-related symptoms – intense fear, horror, or helplessness at diagnosis, and then later re-experiencing the event by avoiding it, or feeling numb or detached, for example.

They found that, 6 months after diagnosis, about 20% of cancer patients experienced some form of PTSD. That’s more than 3 times the rate of PTSD in the general population.

The PTSD rate was in line with the general population at 4 years, but there are plenty of cancer patients who relive their experience, even years later.

My own diagnosis was as traumatic as many others. I was 40 years old, the healthiest I had ever been, and had three young children, aged 10, 8, and 6. After the diagnosis, I spent a week doing blood tests, a PET scan, and a bone marrow biopsy, trying to figure out what I was dealing with.

After all that, I went to see a Lymphoma specialist at a nearby research hospital. For the first time, in the waiting room, I was surrounded by other cancer patients, and my reality started to creep in. I picked up a brochure and saw the 5- and 10-year survival rates for Follicular Lymphoma. It was all overwhelming. I spent the next two weeks breaking into tears every half hour or so, wondering, Will that be me? Will I be a statistic? And wondering what would happen to my kids. It was the darkest time of my life.

Fast forward 9 years. My wife needed some testing done at the same hospital. We went up to the second floor of one of the building, and as she was checking in, I got a strange sense that I’d been there before. The building is kind of pyramid-shaped, with one wall completely made of glass windows. In the middle of the waiting area, there was a large planter full of ferns.

I knew those windows. I knew that planter. This was the waiting room that I had been in before.

As my wife sat in the nearly empty waiting room to be called in, I looked around for a directory, to see if this was actually the Hematology section, and not the specialty she was being tested for. Before she got called in, I told her that I thought this was the same room.

She went in for the tests, so I sat by myself in that waiting room, for the 3 hours or so that the tests took. I had brought a book with me, but I couldn’t focus on it. I got up and walked around, still wondering if this was the same room. Sure enough, I found a bronze plaque that had something to do with an important donor and Hematology. This was the place. I also found a big Andy Warhol-type print of a local personality, his face repeated like Marilyn Monroe’s, hanging on the wall. This personality had blood cancer, too. It’s funny — one memory of that bad day was seeing him in the hallway, when he must have had an appointment. This was most definitely the old Hematology department (which I later realized had moved to a new cancer building).

Lots of feelings came flooding back to me. It’s a strange sensation, reliving something so vividly, nine years later.

I don’t know if what I felt would be classified as Subsyndromal PTSD, as the researchers in the cancer study call it. But it’s easy for me to believe that cancer patients can experience those symptoms, even years after they were diagnosed.

One fascinating finding from the PTSD-Cancer research that really stood out for me: patients with all types of cancer experience PTSD at 6 months at a rate higher than the general population, except one: breast cancer patients.

The researchers think that this is the case because breast cancer patients have so many more support resources available to them than patients of other cancers.

Another conclusion from the researchers that stood out: many cancer patients who do experience PTSD symptoms have the belief that going it alone is a sign of strength, and they should just gut it out when they have emotional problems.

It’s not an easy leap to put those two things together. Breast cancer patients (about 99% of them are women) have more support resources, but are also more likely to use them. In general, men are less likely to seek out help.

My two experiences, nine years apart, were very different. After diagnosis, when things went dark, I kept everything inside for two weeks. I needed to “be strong.” I remember watching TV with my wife and kids, turning off the lights “so I could see better,” but really trying to hide my tears from them. Things only got better when I finally opened up to my wife. She was and still is my rock. She listened, let me cry, and let me know that whatever happened, we would go through it together. Nine years later, after revisiting the same office and feeling the same feelings, I didn’t make that mistake again. We talked through it all right away.

The researchers conclude that more support for cancer patients’ mental health is needed. Even a doctor taking time to debrief a patient’s emotions, right from diagnosis, can help. A doctor’s willingness to bring up the issue can go a long way toward finding a problem.

And patients need to be willing to seek help. Being silent is not a sign of weakness, they say. In fact, it’s a sign of strength – it takes courage to seek help.

That’s a good reminder for all of us.

 

Reflections from the NAMI National Convention (2018)

During the last week of June 2018, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held their annual national convention. This year it was held in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were nearly 1,700 total attendees with representation from every state, including Puerto Rico. Half of the attendees at the convention were first-timers. The theme of the convention was, “Live, Learn, Share, Hope”. Each of these themes resonated with me in a different way:

Live:

The theme “Live” makes me think about how I need to live my life to its fullest. The phrase, “Live each day like it’s your last” came to mind. I have become more mindful in the past few years. To some, “mindfulness” may just seem like a buzz word. To me, being mindful and living in the moment is critical in order to be fully present. I now naturally catch myself when my mind is wandering and pull myself back into the present.  This is important because much of our mind wandering has been shown to be negative. One study found approximately 80% of mind wandering to fall into that category. A recent example of mine was when I was playing a board game with three of my kids. I caught myself starting to think about work and things I needed to accomplish around the house. I quickly stopped those thoughts and intentionally focused on my kids and the game we were playing. Of course, everybody’s “fullest” will look different, and that’s okay. Regardless, if we want to live our lives more deeply, learning to be present will always be part of that formula.

Learn:

Much of the NAMI national conference is about learning. I learned about some of the policy and advocacy work that NAMI is doing at the national level. As the nations largest grassroots mental health organization, NAMI has done an extraordinary amount of work in shaping the national public policy in an effort to support both those living with a mental illness and their family members. NAMI has also educated hundreds of thousands of people giving them information and the resources they need in order to support themselves or others.

In addition to learning more about NAMI, I learned about the difficulties and opportunities in mental health research faced by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). I was able to learn more about new medications, new therapies, and how to become a better advocate. I learned more about the unique challenges faced by people of color who are living with a mental illness. The learning opportunities at the convention were endless!

Share:

Sharing is about connecting with others. I was able to connect with so many dynamic, caring people at the convention. People were open to sharing their own personal experiences of living with a mental illness. Others shared  about supporting a loved one with a mental illness. People shared how they advocate for more awareness and better policies around mental illness. Many were there to share their valuable resources. This sharing “culture” was one that allowed for people to connect and learn from one another in a very authentic, caring way.

Hope:

Hope permeated the NAMI convention. Hearing many stories of those living with a mental illness who have made incredible strides, such as Jeff Fink, Lauren Burke, and Lloyd Hale from the movie, “Beyond Silence”. Each of them overcame inconceivable  challenges of living with a mental illness. Learning from others about how they live incredibly meaningful lives full of contentment while managing their mental illness created an immense feeling of hope.

In the end, this convention was both inspiring and educational. It allowed people from all walks of life to connect with one another and to learn from one another. NAMI is an organization that provides a wealth of resources and information to so many. I would urge anybody who has any interest in mental illness to attend a NAMI national, or even state, convention.

Guest Post: Depression–A Cancer Survivor’s Story

On my testicular cancer awareness blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, I have written extensively what it’s like to experience depression as a cancer survivor. I eventually recognized the signs, asked for help, and went on antidepressants. While I am happy to say they are definitely working, I only knew to ask for them since this wasn’t my first time battling depression.

I’ve alluded to this in past writings, but I fought with clinical depression during my sophomore and junior years in high school. However, I’ve never written a full account of this trying time, and in the wake of the unfortunate events with Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and countless others throughout the past decade, I’m ready to take that leap in hopes of letting someone else know to ask for help.

For context, I grew up in an upper-middle class family. I am the oldest of three kids and my parents are still together. I was in the gifted program since third grade, participated in a number of sports, and school came rather easy to me. In essence, I was the definition of privilege and from the outside, I had no “reason” to be unhappy.

It started slowly enough. Around the start of sophomore year, I realized I was increasingly feeling sad and hopeless. Nothing seemed to bring me joy and I always managed to find the negative in every situation. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening, but I felt too ashamed to open up, since I had a pretty good life. However, there was a lot of pain inside that I just didn’t know how to manage.

I turned to self-harm to try to let out some of this pain. This is the first time I am publicly admitting this, and before this writing less than five people in the world knew I did this. I didn’t want to cut myself since that would leave marks, which would make it hard to keep under wraps. I had done a stunt previously where I sprayed Axe body spray on my hand and lit it on fire. It didn’t cause pain if you did it as a stunt, but if you let it burn long enough, it hurt like hell. I did this a handful of times. It didn’t seem to help, yet it became a habit.

I suppose I subconsciously wanted to let some of this struggle out. I remember one day I put up an “Away Message” on AOL Instant Messenger that was beyond the scope of the normal, teenage angst. When I returned, one of my friends (who I later found out had depression himself) had said, “Um, Justin, you might be depressed.” Even though I was self-harming from time to time, I didn’t believe that I could be depressed. Again – I had a good life; what right did I have to be depressed?

At some point, this internal pain began to be too much. I began thinking that I just didn’t want to live anymore since it was too hard, even though nothing external was “wrong.” I started experiencing thoughts of suicide.

While I never actually attempted it, I had concrete plans on how I would do it. It’s still hard to walk past the area in my parents’ home where I was planning to do it. My little sister is what ended up saving my life. She looks up to me and I didn’t want to let her down. My love for her was stronger than my hate for myself.

Reaching this point was a pivotal moment. I finally admitted something was wrong and I needed help. Yet, I didn’t know how to ask. I decided to stop wearing a mask of being ok on the outside. I moved a little slower. Sighed a little bit more. Smiled less. One day, I flopped down dramatically on the couch and my mom finally asked if I wanted to talk to a therapist. Even though I was most likely weeks away from taking my own life, I couldn’t directly ask.

I agreed to get help and began seeing a therapist. I continued harming myself throughout the first first few sessions and thoughts of suicide still lingered. Eventually, I admitted both of these to the therapist and we decided to start me on a course of antidepressants.

Initially, my dosage was wrong and I experienced a panic attack not too long after beginning them. I freaked out because my mom told me to go to bed and I wasn’t ready yet. I locked myself in my room and began hyperventilating. My dad literally kicked down my door and carried me outside to get fresh air. I calmed down, the doctors adjusted my meds, and the meds took hold. I continued going to the therapist and this one-two punch of medication and therapy helped raise me out of depression.

I don’t remember exactly when I got off of the medication, but it was an uneventful process. I did not slip back into depression, and had no problems coming off of them.

While this experience was probably the hardest in my life, and that’s saying a lot since I faced testicular cancer at 25, it ended up helping me recognize the symptoms early on during my survivorship phase of cancer.

I know that that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, and this study from 2017 that said about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population. Basically, it was a perfect storm of risk factors and I’m glad I knew these figures.

This time, I asked for help and antidepressants. I’m happy to say I am still on the meds and not feeling effects of depression. Experiencing the episode in high school helped me advocate for myself earlier before it got worse.

In addition to being a testicular cancer survivor, I am a fourth grade teacher. I noticed one of my students seemed very upset, distant, and prone to tears. I requested a conference with his parents to discuss these episodes and tried to recommend they take him for a further evaluation. They told me that they give him everything they wanted, love him unconditionally, and he has no reason to be sad. In a moment of “I’m not sure I should do this,” I shared that I what I had experienced (leaving out the self-harm and thoughts of suicide parts), since I had “no reason to be sad” too. I saw something change in their eyes and I hope it may have paid off.

You can’t always tell if someone is experiencing depression from the outside. Like I said, I had a prime life and no real reason to be upset. Depression is a chemical imbalance in your brain and it’s always influenced by external factors. Asking if a person is feeling okay won’t always work, either. They might not even be aware of their own feelings or may hide it out of a certain feeling of stigma. My best advice is to be there for that individual and to be non-judgemental. In 2018, we should be treating mental health as a serious issue and stop the stigma surrounding it.

I hope by sharing my story, even one person realizes that it’s okay to ask for help and doesn’t feel they need to suffer in silence. I compare taking care of mental health to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. No one would blink twice about treating either of those conditions, but why does society not have the same attitude towards mental health?

About the Author

Justin High School.jpg

Justin, in his high school days, with his favorite teacher

Justin Birckbichler is a men’s health activist, testicular cancer survivor, and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness about testicular cancer and promote open conversation about men’s health.

In addition to his work through ABSOT, Justin’s writing has appeared in Cure Magazine, I Had Cancer, The Mighty, The Good Men Project, Stupid Cancer, and more. His work with awareness of men’s health has been featured by Healthline, Ball Boys, and various other organizations. In 2017, ABSOT won an award for the Best Advocacy and Awareness Cancer Blog in 2017 and Justin was recognized as one of 15 People Who Raised Cancer Awareness in 2017. He was also one of the selected attendees of HealtheVoices18.

Justin also serves as a member of the Strategic Advisory Board for the Cancer Knowledge Network and as a board member of the Young Adult Cancer Survivor Advisory Board for Lacuna Loft.

Outside of the “cancer world,” Justin is a teacher, amateur chef, technology aficionado and avid reader. He lives in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife, cat, and dog.

Connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), on Facebook (Facebook.com/aballsysenseoftumor), on YouTube, or via email (justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com).

A Mental Health Survey for Public School Educators

I have felt quite strongly that there is a great need for more mental health support for educators. When I started to research the topic, I was surprised to see that not only was the profession of teacher/educator not on any of the top ten lists for jobs with the highest suicide rate, but they weren’t even in the top twenty (CBS News: These Jobs Have the Highest Rates of Suicide).

I researched further and found several articles that described the mental health needs of educators in England. This only strengthened my belief that England is much further ahead in the world of advocacy around mental health. The recent Project Eighty Four is just one example in which Calm brought the topic of male suicide to the rooftops (quite literally)!

I decided to put together a survey of my own to prove a hypothesis that I had developed: I believe there is a very high number of educators who are struggling with their mental health. I believe that, particularly in the urban settings, many staff members are dealing with students who are going in and out of complex trauma on a daily basis. This includes the type of trauma in these young people’s lives that I cannot even begin to fathom. The fact that many of them have even made it to school is mind-boggling. Even students who are not going in and out of trauma are, often times these days, facing mental health challenges as seen by the data. In 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death for groups aged 10-14 and 15-24 (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml). Many of our students cannot get the medication they need because of various reasons, including a lack of insurance. Others are on month-long waiting lists to get a proper assessment or to find a bed in a facility because they are suicidal. Yet, with all of these challenges, we expect our students to show up to our schools, sit in their chairs quietly, and perform well on our standardized tests (or we could have detrimental repercussions from the federal government, such as the loss of public funds). There’s a shortage of school social workers and school counselors. Not only does this create an unrealistic student to social worker/school counselor ratio adding to their stress, but it also puts classroom teachers in the situation of having to ‘play’ counselor or social worker. Many times our school nurses are dealing more with psychosomatic symptoms than anything actually physical. Building administrators are faced with deciding on consequences for students who they know are facing incredible life challenges. They are also dealing with parents or guardians who are often times dealing with their own life struggles and mental health difficulties.

So, this brings me back to my survey. I created a survey to send to public school educators (staff of any positions in a public school system in the United States). Just prior to making my very brief, confidential survey of eight questions public, I bumped into another survey that had revolved around the mental health of educators: the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey. This was a 30-question survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Badass Teachers Association (BATs). Some of the key findings that stood out to me from their survey results were:

  • Teachers reported having poor mental health for 11 or more days per month at twice the rate of the general U.S. workforce. They also reported lower-than-rec-ommended levels of health outcomes and sleep per night.
  • In response to the question “How often is work stressful?” nearly a quarter of respondents said “always”.
  • Educators and school staff find their work “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time, significantly higher than workers in the general population, who report
    that work is “always” or “often”stressful only 30 percent of the time.
  • Educators are much more likely to be bullied, harassed and threatened at work than other workers.
    • 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group reported they had been bullied, harassed or threatened in the last year.
  • Teachers and school staff are significantly more stressed than other U.S. workers:
    • Respondents to the public survey reported an…average of 12 days in the last 30 that their mental health was not good
    • 21 percent of educators in the random sample characterized their mental health as not good for 11 or more days in the last 30, significantly higher than U.S. workers generally, less than 10 percent of whom reported poor mental health for 11 or more days in the past month, according to national data from 2014.
  • Educators’ physical health is more likely to suffer than other U.S. workers

My first thought was that since a survey had been recently completed, perhaps there is no need for my survey. However, after further reflection, I decided that the fact that the AFT and BATs had such a survey was acknowledgement that perhaps my theory had some validity. In addition to that, my survey is quite different. None of the eight questions that I ask were a part of their survey and my questions, I believe, are much more direct in getting to the mental health of educators.

In the end, once the need is made more apparent, my goal is to advocate for a much better system of support for educators. I believe that districts can do much more than simply hand a brochure to a struggling staff member and offer a few sessions of free, confidential counseling. United States public school educators are dealing with an incredible amount of stress in what is arguably one of the most important roles in our country. We can do better…we must do better… to support them!

If you are a public school educator in the United States, please consider taking this very brief (eight question), anonymous, completely confidential survey regarding Mental Health.

As always, comments to this post (and all others) are welcomed and encouraged! Thank you!