Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Panic attacks can affect anyone. After my interview for the CELTA course which I was trained on, probably the easiest interview of my life, I was walking to my friend’s house thinking it over. As I walked I started to hyperventilate, and I thought I might be having an asthma attack. I couldn’t understand what was happening because although I have asthma, it causes coughing fits, not ‘normal’ asthma attacks. When I got to her house, I couldn’t really talk, and I couldn’t calm down. I started to get pins and needles in my fingers and toes, gradually moving up my limbs. She phoned 999 because neither of us knew what was going on. When the paramedic came, he gave me oxygen and explained what was happening. It took at least 15 minutes for me to start breathing normally again and for the pins and needles to go away. I suspect the thought that triggered the attack was probably me worrying that they wouldn’t accept me onto the course, though I already knew they had: it was my final year of university and my entire plan after my degree was based around getting a CELTA and becoming an ELT teacher. It has only happened to me once so far. I had the first steps towards another one when I was ill at New Year a few weeks ago, but thankfully my amazing best friend was looking after me, and falling sleep due to exhaustion meant I didn’t go all the way into the pit this time.

It's time to talk

Apparently, 2nd February is Time to Talk Day 2017, a UK event “to get the nation talking about mental health and keep the conversation going round the clock”. For a combination of reasons, mental health is an area I have become more and more aware of over the past couple of years, and I’ve been thinking of putting together a list of connected resources for a while. This seems like the perfect opportunity.

Two years ago, Laura Patsko described the conversation starters which she was given for Time to Talk Day 2015, something which you could use yourself or with students.

Phil Longwell made me aware of this year’s Time to Talk Day through his very open interview with teachersasworkers.org about how mental health has affected his life and career.

My panic attacks they come from the tiniest smallest thoughts—and if you don’t know anything about panic attacks you tend to think that panic attacks are something huge—that they are huge, really life-threatening situations but for me they can be the smallest things. It starts from a tiny thought—and that thought can be a trigger which sets you off. Then you’re into a cycle. A panic cycle, they call it.

The UK’s NHS website has a page explaining the symptoms of a panic attack, with a video showing how to tackle the vicious circle that starts it, and a link to tips for coping with a panic attack if you’re having one now.

Rebecca Cope has also had problems at work caused by anxiety attacks, and has written about them very movingly. If this happens to you (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t), you are not alone. Please please please do not be afraid to talk about it. There is nothing wrong with you. If you talk about it, then we can all help the stigma to go away and we can all try to move towards supporting each other and being there when things happen. By the way, as well as being a great writer, Rebecca is a talented artist, as can be seen here:

Four panels by Rebecca Cope: 1. A girl I once knew who always felt blue told me once with head bowed she was trapped by a cloud. 2. She said

Elly Setterfield talks about her self-confidence issues and offers advice on what to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself, in which we learn about the inner critic, and how to respond to it constructively. She has also created an A-Z of self-care for teachers.

Not specifically ELT, but the ‘Behave‘ episode of the language podcast The Allusionist is about how to defuse the power of words going round in your head. James Egerton has a post about ways to help students diffuse exam anxiety, which I think could be useful at other times too.

For those on the outside looking in, first, consider how lucky you are that you don’t have first-hand experience of this. Then read about how to support a friend who is struggling with their mental health.

A management perspective comes from The Secret DoS in You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps, which includes some key advice at the end of the post, and the important line:

Let’s be clear…mental health issues are simply health issues.

One of the things Phil mentioned in his post was the extra pressure that those of us living and working abroad add to our lives by choosing to move away from home, often into places where we don’t speak the language or understand the culture. Here’s an 8-minute talk on helping teachers settle in, which I did at the IH DoS conference a couple of years ago based on my own experiences of arriving in many a new place. It was designed for managers/employers and not directly related to mental health, but it might give you ideas of what to ask for/about on arrival, especially if anxiety is a problem for you.

Another area that can cause a lot of problems is work-life balance, which I have a lot of bookmarks related to. They include tips for getting a better balance yourself, information about the importance of planning breaks into your day and examples of what other people have done. This is one of my favourite reminders of what you can do to help yourself take a break:

50 ways to take a break

Sarah Mercer did an excellent plenary talk at IATEFL 2017 about psychologically wise teachers. The third section includes tips on how to look after yourself. OUP have a webinar called ‘Destress your classroom: stress management and wellbeing for teachers and students‘.

If you’d like to discuss mental health with your students, AllAtC has a B2+ level lesson plan based around mental health and employment. The Mental Health Friendly Initiative has run competitions for mental health lesson plans, though I’m not sure if they’re available to download. They have various resources for promoting social inclusion on their blog (thanks for recommending it Phil).

If you know of any other useful links or if any of these don’t work for you, please let me know so that I can update the post. Together we are all stronger.

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Comments on: "Useful links on Mental Health in ELT" (14)

  1. Nice timing, Sandy! I’ve also started keeping a list. Maybe we can work together on collating these? Fiona Oates also wrote about it for ELTjam. http://eltjam.com/why-mental-health-matters/. Neil Millington wrote this, although more about general wellbeing. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/neil-t-millington/be-kind-yourself. Likewise, Phil Nash wrote about wellbeing on the BESIG blog.. http://www.besig.org/blog/default.aspx?Year=2016&Month=3.

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  2. The idea for my interview only came out of a conversation with Paul Walsh about three weeks ago, but it’s been brewing for a long time. Been waiting for the right moment. I have found it cathartic and am thrilled by the positive response.

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    • That’s great. I often find that writing can make a huge difference to how I feel about things, and it has allowed me to get a lot of things out of my system and to realise how supportive a network we have. I’m glad you’ve found the same with this post. I’ve added some of your links to the post and to my bookmarks – thanks for those too.

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  3. Thanks for sharing these stories, resources, and general information. It’s an important issue and the stigma around it is horrible.

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  4. Who exactly *IS* the secret DOS?

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  5. […] brave and honest interview on the Teachers as Workers blog and Sandy Millin’s list of useful links on mental health in ELT, but couldn’t help but feel that this should give me the impetus to write a post I’ve […]

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  6. Thank you so much for posting about this. It’s always been such a taboo topic but acceptance and understanding are growing. I too have had my share of panic attacks and bouts of anxiety. Open discussion and sharing our experiences help us all realize that we’re not the only ones.

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  7. Thank you Sandy for this post.

    I experienced a huge panic attack on the train on the way to work four years ago. It was without doubt the most frightening experience of my life, I thought I was having a heart attack. At the time I was working full time while studying for the DELTM and my partner was pregant with our second child. Looking back I can see how this was a manisfestation of the stress I had put myself under.

    All workplaces are stressful in their own ways but educational organisations in particular have unique stressors that if not properly understood and managed can so often lead to the mental health issues among staff that you have described above. For teachers, there is the constant background anxiety of having to perform in the classroom, making sure all students are satisfied, time spent planning lessons etc. We all know how much of our thinking time teaching takes up.

    For those of us in academic management, the sheer burden of responsibility can be overwhelming – we have so many demands placed on us from students, teachers, colleagues in other departments and senior management. And all the while we are expected to be a beacon of calmness and serenity.

    A lot of stress is simply a result of the human condition – we evolved over millions of years to be super-sensitive to threats in the jungle; our bodies and minds behave essentially in the same way as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, yet we are no longer at risk (thankfully) of being torn apart by a pack of hungry wolves. The problem is we still have these ‘suspicious minds’, we see perceived threats everywhere, from an ambiguously worded email to a dissaproving facial expression from a colleague or student. This sends our minds into overdrive as we ruminate on tryng to work out what the problem is, how we can solve it, maybe we can’t solve it, etc. Before we know it we are having difficulty sleeping because of these thoughts, our bodies are tense with anxiety, we become more irritable in work/with friends/relationships. The truth is, most of the time ‘thoughts are not facts’.

    The sooner workplaces start to understand this and acknowledge the amount of stress staff can be put under, the better. Encouraging open and transparent communication and feedback systems is hugely important. A lack of trust within organisations can lead to a toxic environment and thus plenty of stress. Many teachers constantly feel like they are being judged by management, through observation systems and student feedback. Do we observe members of staff ‘performing’ in other departments? All this is compounded by the fact that workplace conditions in many organisations within the EFL industry still have a lot to answer for in terms of remuneration for workload and annual leave allowance, which can make staff feel under-appreciated.

    Introducing a well-being policy would be a good first step that organisations can take in addressing workplace stress. This needs to come from the top of course, but opening this up in the staff room as a priority and talking with colleagues is the way forward.

    This will be one of my goals this year and I hope to get something up and running. As for my own personal approach to managing my own stress levels and increasing my resilience, I enrolled on an eight-week Mindfulness-based stress reduction course a couple of years ago and I have found this to be really helpful in helping me to respond skillfully to stressful situations. I still practice daily when I can.

    I’d recommend everyone to read a book called The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. It provides an accessible, easy to read metaphor for how and why our minds operate the way they do. The Secret DoS wrote a reliably entertaining review of it here https://thesecretdos.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/book-review-the-chimp-paradox/

    Another highly useful book is ‘The Mindful Workplace’ by Michael Chaskalson, easy to read and with plenty of practical advice on how to manage stress at work.

    Finally, ‘Reinventing Organisations’ by Frederic Laloux gives a fantastic analysis of how some of the most forward-thinking organisations, including educational ones, are reinventing how organisations work through removing heirarchies judgement systems such as top-down appraisals, and promoting autonomy and self-management.

    Thankfully the taboos around mental health are starting to dissolve and a lot of industries are already way ahead in prioritising the well-being of their staff. It’s time our industry caught up.

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    • Thank you so much for this comment and for being so open Matt. I completely agree when you say that open and transparent communication and feedback systems are key. I would also add the adjective ‘supportive’ to them, though I think you’ve expressed that elsewhere within the comment. Thanks for the recommendations too. Good luck with maintaining your own balance – it sounds like you’ve got things under much more control now.
      Sandy

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  8. […] its publication, it was shared many times on social media. It inspired at least two other bloggers, Sandy Millin and Elly Setterfield to write their own personal responses to coincide with Time to Talk day, […]

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  9. Daniel Razionale said:

    Very well written, thanks Sandy. A search on Google led me to this site which provides six LEA-style lessons dealing with general health, including stress and depression: http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/Health/#Stressed

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  10. […] Most importantly, we need to look after our own mental well-being. […]

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