I was saddened last week to hear about the unexpected death of news reader, Greg Boyed and his battle with depression. His death has renewed conversations about depression and mental health and has made me reflect on my own battle with depression and the battles of those close to me.
Depression is an old friend of mine that has come to visit me during various periods of my life. I am sure that there are many of you out there that are fighting your own battles with this familiar foe.
In a profession where we give so much of ourselves to so many, the needle on our emotional tanks can so easily point to empty. In a sector with alarming burnout rates due to stress, high child to teacher ratios, mounting paperwork, and the challenges of working in close proximity with others with differing beliefs and pedagogy it is easy for us to feel a bit disillusioned and sometimes even depressed. Yet we often feel pressured to put on our “happy face” and to be there for others when we are feeling really low inside.
What we are not talking about….
I belong to many of the online ECE social media forums and I often see posts from teachers who have “lost their spark”, feel unsure how to deal with challenging behaviours and who are stressed out by the demands put on us by teachers. I recently surveyed 100 teachers at random about their satisfaction in our sector. I was saddened to find that only 26% of teachers who took part in the survey where happy in their current job. That is 74% of teachers who were somewhat happy to not happy at all.
Some teachers wrote about working in “great homely environments with supportive management” and “working for fantastic owners with great ratios…well-resourced and great remuneration”. However, many teachers wrote about feeling unsupported by their leaders, or feeling the strain of quality vs budgets. Many teachers spoke about the pressures of never-ending paperwork and being expected to work unpaid overtime. A high proportion of teachers reported to work in centres with high child teacher ratios or in centres where the ratios “on paper” did not match what happened in reality.
Teacher mental health and the effect on children
The survey results saddened me on many levels, but the thing that saddened me the most was the children in the middle of all of this. The children who do not have choices about which setting they attend or the people that they are around. It saddened me that our children are around so many stressed out, unhappy people and spend sometimes 8- 10 hours in sometimes emotionally toxic environments.
There are many brain development studies out there documenting the effects that educator/parent mental health has on the developing child’s brain and mental health. In fact, a study undertaken by Ohio State University in Columbus across 15 American cities found:
a direct relationship between teacher depression and “externalizing” problems in children, such as anger and aggression, as well as “internalizing” problems, such as anxiety, sadness or withdrawal.
Walter S. Gilliam, the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Gilliam’s research found that “prekindergarten teachers and child-care staff who report elevated symptoms of depression are somewhat more likely to engage in child-care practices that are rated as less sensitive to children’s needs, more intrusive, and more negative.
The reason for this is that our children are constantly downloading from us. Our mood, our emotions, how we are responding to them and to others around us. Our youngest children, our infants and toddlers are designed to learn by being in a dyadic (two way) relationship with a receptive, in tuned adult. Teachers who are depressed and unable to emotionally connect with themselves cannot emotionally connect with others.
Our children are spending longer hours in early childhood settings and are often in ECE centres for more waking hours in the week compared to being at home. What emotional frequencies are they picking up on? How can they become happy, fulfilled, intrinsically motivated, resilient collaborative and successful human beings if they are not having this modelled to them?
This is only learnt through having relationships with happy, fulfilled, intrinsically motivated, resilient adults.
What can you do?
Let me start off with saying, your mental health is important. You are not alone in this, one in six New Zealanders (more common in women than men) experience some form of mental disorder including depression.
Some of the symptoms of depression that you shouldn’t ignore are:
- constantly feeling down or hopeless
- loss of enjoyment or interest in doing the things you used to enjoy doing
- negative thinking and sleep problems
- You may even feel so bad that you have thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.
If you notice that you are suffering from these symptoms it is important that you get help. I know from my personal journey with depression that this is very difficult. We often don’t what to “burden” others with our problems. Or we don’t like to admit vulnerably, but the sooner you find help, the sooner you’ll start to feel better.
Some of the ways that you can do this, is by talking to someone you can trust. Your GP is a great place to start. Your GP can check to see if you are deficient in certain vitamins or minerals such as iron, vitamin B or vitamin D (especially in the winter months), help you with regular check-ins, medication (if you need it) as well as coping tools or a referral to a counsellor. In most cases this is free.
- Get Support – You can also speak to a friend or a trusted colleague, ideally someone who has known you for a while and can help you put your current situation into perspective – after all a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s natural to want to dive under the covers and hide when you’re feeling depressed. Avoid feeling isolated by reaching out if you are able. Make a coffee date, invite a friend over for take-out pizza.
- Talk about it – Speak about your feelings and avoid keeping things that are bothering you bottled up inside. Remaining silent or bottling can cause you to wage a war within yourself. These conversations might feel challenging at first, but they do get easier with practise.
- Consider your environment – are you in the place that is the right fit for you? I know that you might feel guilty about leaving the children and families or letting your team down, but if your own happiness is suffering because of it you are just adding to the bad “emotional hygiene” of the setting and doing your team, children and families a disservice.
- Focus on today – When we focus too far in the future it can be very overwhelming. Instead focus on what you can do today. About 99% of what we worry about in the future never even happens, all you truly have is today.
- Get moving – Dust of your walking shoes and get out in the fresh air for a walk. It sounds like cross purposes but even though you might not feel like have the energy to exercise, participating in regular exercise can boost those “feel good” chemicals, your energy levels and your mood. You are never going to feel like it, sometimes you have to push yourself do it, in order to make yourself feel better.
- Know your triggers – Think about the children in your settings, through time and careful observation you get to know their behaviour triggers. You know that the wheels are going to come off if you ignore the tired or hungry signs. Or that behaviour is going to escalate if you don’t take time to give the child who is feeling hurt or upset a much-needed cuddle. We are no different, we “play up” emotionally when we are not meeting our own needs.
- Take care of yourself – Be vigilant about your self-care. I am not talking about a trip to the spa of a candle-lit bath here (although this is a lovely way to treat yourself). By this I mean be mindful of your nutrition, unplug from screens and the internet and create a sleep ritual that ensures that you are getting the rest that you need. Be careful with your personal boundaries, create a healthy space for yourself away from external negativity – beware of those energy pirates!
- Pay attention to yourself talk – When we think negative thoughts we cannot expect to have positive results. Our negative thoughts become “negative affirmations” holding us back and leading us to repeat the same behaviours over and over again, this can become a habit loop. We need to pay attention to our thoughts and intentionally replace the negative affirmation with a positive thought. This can be can be hard work, but it trust me it does get easier.
- Become mindful – Gift yourself a bit of time in the morning to practise, gratitude and mindfulness and set yourself up for the day. Meditation has been shown to reduce levels of stress and perceived stress. Meditation and mindfulness have been proven to change the structure of your amygdala which is the part of your brain that controls feelings such as anger, fear and anxiety. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build stronger relationships.
Realize that it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Make a habit of noticing the goodness that is already yours first thing in the morning, and you will see more goodness everywhere you look throughout the day.
Marc and Angel.
- Find yourself in the service of others – Looking for a natural “high”? Helping others or doing kind things for others can have a positive effect on your happiness and well-being. Studies have shown the just witnessing acts of kindness produces Oxycontin, the ‘love hormone’ which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving our overall heart-health. Oxycontin also increases our self-esteem and optimism. Kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical which helps to heal your wounds, calm you down, and makes you happy! Being kind to others reduces pain, can reduce the stress hormone cortisol by 23%, anxiety and depression. Being altruistic is linked to lowering blood pressure and increases heart health.
- Rekindle a passion – Think back to a time when you were happiest, what things where you doing that you no longer do? What passion or leisure activity can you rediscover? Create a network of people who have similar interests and whom you will look forward to meeting up with on a regular basis.
- One step at a time – Remember that only one little step is all that is ever needed. There is always hope, you won’t always feel this way. One day you will look back to this day and realise how far you have come.
But not out;
Crying but still breathing;
Enough to survive this
– the love yourself challenge.
Thank you for reading my blog. If you or someone you care about is suffering with depression please reach out to Lifeline on 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO), or www.depression.org.nz for online resources as well as Depression Helpline, free phone 0800 111 757 and Anxiety Line 0800 ANXIETY (2694 389).