[March 2020: Phil Longwell has compiled a list of links to help you with mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak.]
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.
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.
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.
In May 2020, he recorded an interview for the TDSIG Developod podcast talking about mental health in general and within ELT.
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:
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. Marie Delaney has a shorter post in a similar vein about how to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your students.
Lizzie Pinard talks about her first steps with mindfulness and the benefits she has felt from it.
Accepting that thinking (and overthinking!) is what the mind does, and not getting frustrated about it, is key. Instead, it’s a case of gently and repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present moment. And from there, you can identify which of the thoughts, if any, are useful to listen to and pursue, rather than just being stuck amidst a load of endless mind babble.
She has also summarised a webinar by Emma Reynolds called ‘Mind full or Mindful?’ which was part of the 2019 Macmillan World Teachers Day Conference.
Here’s a post from WeAreTeachers asking the question Should teachers take mental health days? including advice on what to do with one of those days when you decide that they are necessary for you.
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. Liam Day tells you how to beat depression and anxiety in the classroom. Ricardo Barros describes his experiences with depression and how he sought help to get through them. Anna Loseva reports on a session she attended about Frustration Regulation which was run by Sam Morris, including ideas like a frustration journal.
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.
Emma Johnston talks about what a mental-health friendly language school could and should look like.
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. Working with difficult colleagues can also be problematic, so here are some tips from Chris Wilson to help 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:
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‘. Claire Hart writes about taking control of your workload instead of letting it control you, particularly for freelancers, but also for others too.
Burnout is also an issue which can affect people in many professions, particularly the so-called ‘caring professions’. Clare Maas has quotes from various teachers on avoiding burnout, and a list of tips and suggestions, of which I think the final paragraph is particularly useful. Roseli Serra describes her experience and those of teachers she has interviewed, then offers advice on how to reduce the likelihood of burnout happening to you. Andrea Camara also has advice about how to reduce the stressors in your life that may lead to burnout. Rachael Roberts describes the ‘four burners’ theory and explains how this can help you to understand how to avoid burnout. Christina Jones describes some of the research into teacher burnout and how a technique from positive psychology called PERMA could help you out. Chris Mares, Theodora Papapanagiotou and a teacher with ADHD also contributed articles to the iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) issue on Mental Health at the same time. Marc Jones is blogging about his ADHD and how it affects his life and his job as an English teacher. Other people who have talked about their experiences of mental health issues as English language teachers include Lizzie Pinard, and the podcasters at TEFLology. Lizzie has also summarised a workshop she attended on promoting positive mental health, particularly for LGBT+ people, but with tips that everyone should find useful.
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).
Phil Longwell used his IATEFL 2018 talk to describe the findings of research he has done over the past year about the mental health of English language teachers. You can read about his findings here. The recording is here:
He also did a 10-minute interview for the IATEFL YouTube channel:
The 8th March 2018 Twitter #ELTchat was about Teachers’ well-being and mental health, including stories, possible causes for poor mental health, and how things are slowly starting to change.
Although epilepsy doesn’t quite fall into the same category as the other mental health issues discussed above, I feel it’s also important to share Kate Cory-Wright’s story of Coping with Epilepsy in the World of Education, and this post seems like the best place to do it.
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.