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Dr. Natasha Williams

Putting Mental Wellness Front and Centre

VOICE in Conversation with Psychologist Dr. Natasha Williams
ETFO Voice

VOICE: Teachers came into the school year with a lot of unknowns about what the year will look like and what the process will be as we begin our COVID-19 recovery. What are some strategies for coping with these unknowns as we head into 2022?

NATASHA WILLIAMS: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone as we have been navigating so much uncertainty. With changes in education and delivery of school curriculum and fears over health and safety, educators have been experiencing emotions such as worry, fear and anxiety. One of the first recommended strategies is not to criticize yourself for how you are feeling. These feelings are normal in uncertain times.

As educators, you may feel that being in a position of influence means you must have all the answers and be a pillar of strength for your students. However, you need to understand there are certain things you simply cannot control right now. It is okay not to know everything and to express that to your students. Expressing your own vulnerability during these difficult times is a sign of strength.

It is how we use our vulnerability that will be the key. Focus on what you can control within the unknowns – how you spend some of your time, what you choose to prioritize, what types of media you consume (and how frequently) and your mindset, to name a few. By focusing on the things you can control and prioritizing the ones that are healthy, you can help put your mental wellness front and centre and, in turn, model that for your students.

Students will look to educators to be positive role models this year. How you handle your fears and your own stress and how you act throughout the day will impact how students assess their own situations and how they react. One strategy to use to model positive coping is to tell students about your coping strategies for anxiety and uncertainty. This can make them feel less alone and can provide them with a guide for how to handle the situation themselves.

Educators can let students know that we can try to take things one day at a time and enjoy the current day rather than worry about what the future holds, especially when that future can be somewhat uncertain.

VOICE: Students and parents have significant residual stress from the past two years. What are some strategies for supporting students while also maintaining our own mental health?

NW: The past two years have been extremely challenging for students and parents. Changes in work and school have caused students and parents to constantly shift and adapt to different circumstances. This has likely resulted in substantial impacts on students’ mental health as well as that of their parents. They may be experiencing a host of emotions including anxiety, fear and possibly anger.

As educators, it is important to listen to students’ concerns and express understanding and empathy. Letting families know you understand and appreciate their perspectives will help open a dialogue for problem solving. However, within this safe and judgement-free space, educators must understand they are not expected to be psychologists, psychotherapists or social workers. It is important for educators to know what their boundaries are to maintain their own mental health. Providing a safe and judgment-free space does not mean you absorb the feelings and emotions of your students and parents. It is quite appropriate to refer students and parents who appear to be experiencing difficulty coping to other resources within your school community such as social workers, psychologists or psychotherapists.

Providing clear information to families as early as possible will also be helpful in supporting them. Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, and we have seen much of it during the COVID-19 pandemic. While tolerating uncertainty will be required for families to some extent, school administrators and educators can work together to communicate frequently and clearly with families to support their planning and coping.

For students, being honest and encouraging is preferred over being reassuring. Blanket reassurance statements (e.g., everything will be fine; there is nothing to be worried about) can be invalidating and can create doubt and uncertainty that may drive a need for further reassurance. This cycle can lead to what is known as “excessive reassurance seeking” (child constantly asks if things are okay).

Instead, being open, honest and encouraging with students is a preferred approach. This may include acknowledging risks while emphasizing how precautions reduce those risks and how students can feel good about being at school given all of the thought and planning that has gone into protecting students.

If students continue to seek reassurance, staff can encourage tolerance of uncertainty and teach students to learn to solve problems and come up with solutions to their own concerns where possible – “What can you do here to calm yourself down?” or “What options do we have here instead of just avoiding?”

Educators can empower students by giving them the tools to identify the problem, identify possible solutions, pick a solution and try it out.

VOICE: Can you recommend any strategies for calming down the nervous system when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. How do we help ourselves? How do we help our students?

NW: When stress is unhelpful, people may feel overwhelmed or as though they can’t possibly fix problems. It can be very hard to concentrate, make decisions and feel confident when a person is experiencing a lot of stress. Many people experience physical sensations like sweating, accelerated heart rate and tense muscles. Over time, stress can also have a big impact on physical health. Sleep difficulties and headaches are common problems related to stress. People are also more likely to get sick when they’re experiencing a lot of stress.

One of the first strategies that will be important for educators is to carve out time for self-care to maintain your mental health. Engaging in exercise, reading, journaling or taking a long bath can significantly improve your mental health and decrease stress.

Modelling self-compassion is also important, now more than ever. Being kind to yourself is incredibly helpful not only for you but also for your students. Educators teach students the basics of self-compassion, self-kindness and kind and compassionate self-talk in their daily interactions. Now is the time to turn it inwards and practice it towards yourself. In doing so, you’ll benefit your own mental wellness and also be able to model it for others in your life.

Furthermore, setting reasonable expectations for yourself and others will also be important in calming down the nervous system and navigating stress. Collectively, we need to acknowledge that we are still finding our way out of this pandemic. Things are going to be different, and that is okay. We can’t expect to be as productive, or on top of it, or together, as we once could. Certain levels of stress are to be expected during this time, and that is okay. There is no possible way you can be all things to all people all the time. By setting small, realistic goals and expectations around what you are actually capable of, you will be setting yourself up to feel much more fulfilled.

VOICE: An educator has a five-minute break in an otherwise difficult day. What can they do to quickly recharge?

NW: Being a classroom educator is a balancing act and days can become hectic and difficult. Challenges will continue to be a part of navigating through these uncertain times. Continually engaging in the non-stop, fast-paced day to day can be overwhelming. While I acknowledge educators have several responsibilities they need to be accountable for, as human beings we cannot function in “fight or flight” mode for a long time. Fight or flight is a human evolutionary response to danger or threat. Our bodies were created to only engage in this response for a limited amount of time before our system returns to a homeostatic state. If we remain in this fight or flight response mode for an extended period, we risk our bodies becoming compromised. This is where we notice increased vulnerability to diseases such as hypertension and heart disease. The ability to use a five minute “time out” to recharge is an excellent action for managing stress.

One of the ways to quickly recharge is to find a quiet space and engage in relaxation breathing, meditation or prayer. When I instruct clients in relaxation breathing, I ask them to place a hand on their stomach, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth and ensure that their stomach expands and contracts in order to engage in deep, restorative breathing. This is an excellent way to calm the mind and body, quiet your surroundings and recharge.

Dr. Natasha Williams is a Registered Psychologist with the College of Psychologists of Ontario. She is the Clinical Director of Allied Psychological Services and the current President of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPSI).