There is a research-based strategy that reduces workplace stress, prevents burnout, and allows the balance we crave by creating effective, easy-to-implement opportunities for you to practice self-care. Are you anxious to know the strategy but worried about how to implement it?
I discussed this topic with Annie Slease, the director of advocacy and education for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) based in Wilmington, DE. After she had offered a self-care professional development (PD) with educators, she said, “Nearly 100% of the participants immediately began talking about how to use these strategies for their students. They never mentioned applying it to themselves.”
The pandemic shined a glaring light on the need for mental health care for school leaders. We take care of our students and staff, but we never take time to care for ourselves. When that happens, our emotional wellness suffers.
The pandemic has also opened a door for us to lean in and normalize conversations around mental health, destigmatizing it and supporting each other. We all need good mental health, well-being, and happiness, and moving our mental health goals forward starts with you, the building leader.
Principals are not educationally trained to lead through the lens of mental health, so we must add resources to our toolkit. My journey to positive mental health began when my personal desire merged with a professional presentation on the ARMM Model, which stands for acknowledge, reflect, model, and manifest. The presentation changed the way I looked at my role as a leader.
Acknowledge: Where Are You Now?
The first step is to acknowledge where you are and where your school is and identify what it would mean to create space for “balance,” self-care, and mental healthiness. Acknowledge where your school is in terms of resources, education, and support. Create opportunities and space for folks to share how they feel and what they might need. Is there anxiety around returning to an in-person schedule? Are there social injustices in our hearts that affect our mental health? Is “toxic positivity” impeding our progress?
At Sarah Pyle Academy (SPA):
As part of our acknowledgment, all faculty and staff members responded to multiple anonymous surveys and informal focus groups on how they felt. We asked specific questions around personal and professional goals, systems needed, and mental health support. Their feedback drove my planning, support, and continued PD plan.
Reflect: Where Do You Need to Go?
Next, reflect on how you can create space, align policy, create a common language, and build expectations for mental health, well-being, and happiness. Where is your school on this journey? Are you ready for a full school implementation of a certification like Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA)? Or is it time to incorporate strategic partners to galvanize the work you and your team are doing to meet your community needs?
Reflect on how your community reacts when people are leaning into their healthiest selves. How are you including all members of your school’s community in your goal-setting and mental health plan? Reflect on your shared vision and ensure that it includes and is grounded in mental health, well-being, and happiness. Include an agenda item for addressing mental health in every meeting. Are you allowing your community to be human first, providing opportunities for gratitude, celebration of staff, and opportunities for members to feel confident in how they have addressed students’ mental health?
After I reviewed our data on all levels, my urgency heightened. I reflected on our staff’s mental health and took action, recognizing that the support needed would not be the same for everyone.
When we first embarked on our Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, it started with NAMI Basics, a national, evidence-based course designed for parents/caregivers and professional caregivers to address existing mental health challenges in youth. From there, we surveyed staff members on how they wanted to move forward. That resulted in 100% of our staff participating in MHFA and 75% of our staff opting to receive personalized coaching around social-emotional learning strategies.
This past year, we identified that we needed more work to address social inequities and racism. This PD alignment relieved a stressor that was adding to an already overburdened year. We also identified that we needed designated space for staff to de-escalate guilt-free. This is still a work in progress.
Lastly, we make time before every meeting to identify what is right in our SPA world. This practice of gratitude keeps us grounded in our goals and reminds us that there are small victories even on our worst days.
Model: How to Get There
Modeling is the most challenging component because it starts and ends with you, the leader. The culture of mental health, well-being, and happiness cannot be delegated away, but it can be shared.
Be open and transparent about your boundaries. Set a reasonable time for all faculty and staff members to stop checking emails, and then stop checking emails.
Normalize mentally healthy language. Avoid using stigmatizing words like “crazy,” “bipolar,” or “gay” in a demeaning way. Ask for and use people’s pronouns. This can cause some discomfort; however, your transparency will inspire growth.
Normalize check-ins, have real conversations, and allow your staff members to be human. Challenge staff members when they say they feel “fine” or “OK.” When you are questioned, be honest. It’s OK to say, “I am feeling a little overwhelmed.” People need to feel just as supported and heard while going through mental health challenges as when they’re going through physical ones.
Each day, I make an effort to check in with my staff. During our hybrid time, I made it my business to deliver snacks or lunch to staff and students. This provided me an informal opportunity to check in with all of them.
Openly sharing my own journey has been game changing. When I acknowledged my own vulnerabilities, others opened up. Until then, I felt like it was my duty as our leader to shoulder the brunt of the stress and not pile my anxiety on top of my team. But I felt safe to share as I had an established foundation of trust and had begun to work on our mental health culture. The year my son made an attempt on his life almost crushed me. I was vulnerable and broken, and I had to share. It was one of the best leadership experiences I have ever had. Not only did my SPA team lift me up professionally, but our community wellness has also continued to grow in ways I would have never anticipated.
Manifest: Provide Support and Opportunities
This is when your plan evolves into action. We all are required to have a structure in place for school well-being, but are we aligning that to individual needs for ourselves and staff?
Encouraging our staff to engage in self-care, without acknowledging the guilt it may generate, exacerbates the issue. We need to align policies that address stress management and individual needs without shame.
Train your staff and yourself to recognize the early signs and risk factors of mental health challenges. Provide regular training. Encourage your staff members and lean into their personal values that may include family, spirituality, or social justice.
Advocate for your staff members to access services they need. Work with human resources and your local NAMI office for appropriate support resources and update them regularly. Validate staff members’ self-care choices, and discourage martyrdom. Prioritize and reassess tasks for their value and remove things that serve no purpose. Lean into values and relationships, maximize community, give autonomy, and continue to monitor the work. Make mental healthiness a priority.
A few years ago, a staff member died suddenly, and we were grieving. Our state Health Management Systems provider offered up a therapist for us to process together as a community and set up sessions for individuals and groups. Now we have a reliable, trustworthy group of therapists who understand the unique needs of our population and serve our building.
During our COVID-19 hybrid and remote learning, we teamed teachers up in Zoom rooms during office hours and instructional periods to minimize feelings of isolation. For our first day of school attendance policy for our teachers, we encouraged all SPA faculty and staff members to see their own personal children off on their first day. We found a guilt-free way to cover their absence and celebrate with them.
ARMM yourself with kindness and self-compassion. You are enough, and as Maya Angelou said, “We do the best we can until we know better.” Now we know better.
Kristina MacBury is the principal at Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, DE.