Mental Health – There’s a lot you can do. And you should.
by Chris Mares.
Having been brought up in England, a long time ago, mental health was not something that was ever talked about. We were taught to get on with it. Stiff upper lip and all that. Everything was always fine and if it wasn’t, no one would know what to say, except “Fancy a cup of tea?” Most males were hopelessly adrift from their emotions and were quite unaware of how to deal with the stressors in their lives, other than going to the pub, supporting a football team, or smoking cigarettes.
Now, looking back, I see that mental health in ELT needs to be addressed from the get go. Teaching is draining. Especially when starting out. The fears we have all experienced are numerous: Do I have enough material? What do I do if someone asks me a grammar question I can’t answer? What happens if I can’t remember their names or they don’t like me? What if I can’t think of anything to do? I’m teaching too many classes…
The list goes on. In my case, many years ago, I got divorced. That led to depression. That’s mental illness. And then, when my youngest daughter went to college, I no longer had to pay child support or alimony and, without realizing it, I went temporarily mad. In a manic state of euphoria I bought boats and bikes and almost bankrupted myself before suddenly coming to the realization that I had to stop.
Over the course of my career and certainly during my teacher training I often allude to the importance of mental health. We owe it to ourselves and our students to be both physically and mentally healthy.
The two points I’d like to make concern professionalism and the need to actively tend to our mental well-being.
During my times of duress, I found that I could, like an actor, hide behind my cheery teaching persona. Teaching, in fact, was a relief. I could escape my crumbling marriage, and temper my unbridled spending. Without teaching I may have come even more adrift than I already was.
On a personal level, being in the classroom, interacting with students, preparing and writing materials, all of these activities prevented my mental health from deteriorating.
My second point relates to how we address mental health. We need to treat it like physical health, i.e. you have to actively do things in order to remain or become mentally healthy. I know what works for me and perhaps some of these activities will work for you. Firstly, I need to get satisfaction from my teaching by teaching all my students and making the classroom experience both positive and worthwhile. Secondly, I need to have at least one writing project going that doesn’t relate to our field. At the same time, I need to have one writing project that does relate to our field, either a blog post, or materials for teaching. I also need to be learning something – currently new songs on the guitar and Spanish through Duolingo. The fanfare at the end of successful completion of a five-minute lesson is highly rewarding, motivating, and addictive. In my case I can only do these things if I do them at the same time of day. Every day. In short, I make them a practice.
Lastly, mental health is not possible without physical health. Rest, exercise, and a healthy diet are all central to this endeavor. The body supports the brain. The brain generates the mind.
There is one coda – honesty. Honesty with one’s self and others. If something is bothering you, admit it to yourself and take action. If someone is bothering you, the same applies, take action.
To ensure success, when you wake up in the morning, say the word “gratitude” and think of three things you’re grateful for. Then think of someone to forgive, even if it is only yourself. Next, remember that family and friends are more important than anything. And breaking bread together brings us closer. I bake brownies once a week. My students now order me to. I give the rest to strangers on campus.
It’s amazing what small acts of random kindness can do.