I’ve been married for more than 30 years. My husband and I are both educators and school leaders, currently serving as principals. But during much of our time together, we suffered silently through something that is still hard for educators to talk about: a mental health crisis.

Our challenges started when my husband had a series of back surgeries, which led to a decline in both his physical and mental health. He started showing signs of depression at home but was still working, which brought additional stress. I had never dealt with mental health issues, so this was new to me, and together we had to learn how to deal with it. We didn’t know what resources were out there, and mental health wasn’t something people talked about—this was about 15 years ago—so we struggled in silence. You didn’t dare tell your colleagues because there was a shame factor, which I believe is even worse for men.

At one point, after years of dealing with this disease, the suffering got so bad that he attempted to take his life. When that happened, I went into crisis mode. I didn’t know where to turn so I reached out to everyone I could, including hospitals, social workers, and counselors, to find him the best care.

Principal Terri Howell with students at Hurricane Intermediate School. PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRI HOWELL

We tried many treatments—blood gene analysis, electroshock therapy, a variety of medications, among them—but nothing worked long-term. Those were dark days. I was working at the time as an assistant principal and trying to raise my three boys. I was juggling family life and work life and doing my best to keep my family alive.

One day, my son heard on a podcast about the use of ketamine to treat depression. I had no idea what it was. We researched it and found out there really were positive effects for people struggling with mental illness. We tried ketamine thanks to a doctor who recognized the benefits of prescribing it and this has changed our lives. I don’t want to say he is cured, but he has been able to live the way he did before and is able to find joy in the things he used to do.

Normalizing the Discussion

Having gone through this, mostly without a lot of outside support, I decided that I would take every opportunity to talk about our experience. It needs to become so normal that people don’t worry about saying something. It should be as normal as saying you have a common cold and asking what can be done to make you feel better.

I do think we’ve made a lot of progress in the wake of COVID-19. The pandemic opened people up to talking about mental health and understanding that it is OK and necessary. It has definitely given us a platform to talk to students and families and let them know help is available.

I think we still have miles to go. There remains this notion that principals, and men in particular, need to be strong. When my husband first started sharing his story, it wasn’t always well received. Some people felt like a principal can’t have challenges with mental health and still lead. But we know that’s wrong. In fact, anyone dealing with mental illness will naturally have empathy for students, parents, and families that also struggle with it. It allows them to understand the situation in ways that others never will.

Becoming a Better Listener

For me personally, our experience has helped me become a better principal by providing a listening ear and offering a safe place for people to share. They know I’m not going to judge them if they come to me and admit they are struggling. A lot of people don’t share because they don’t feel safe; they feel judged and different. It has also allowed me to reach students in a way I never could. Once you’ve lived through something, you understand it better and you’re able to support students as well as staff.

When my husband first started sharing his story, it wasn’t always well received. Some people felt like a principal can’t have challenges with mental health and still lead. But we know that’s wrong.

This is my second year as the principal of Hurricane Intermediate School in Hurricane, UT. When I was hired last year, I only had two weeks before school started, and I was dealing with a whirlwind of activity. But I wanted to be real and authentic with my staff, which is something that I’ve learned really resonates with me and others. I shared my story in our first faculty meeting. I told them that our students come to school with backpacks. I’m not talking about the backpacks that carry books but rather the struggles of life. I let them know what was in my backpack. It was a difficult time in my life, but I got through it, and I was stronger on the other side. I said I was here for them and if anyone struggles with mental health issues, my door is always open. I felt like it provided a safe place for my colleagues to be able to work.

Advice for Other Leaders

If this is something new to you, or you’re a new school leader, I have a couple of suggestions. First, educate yourself on what mental illness really is, what depression is, and what the symptoms are. What can you look for in students or staff members? You’re probably already seeing some of these without knowing it.

Second, if you struggle with your own mental health or that of someone close to you, start talking about it. Get real and be open and authentic. I promise you there are probably 10 other people you already know who are struggling with the same thing.

As the president-elect of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals, I feel an obligation to share my story. If I didn’t, I think I would be doing a disservice not only to myself but also to my family and the challenges that we have faced. It’s important to keep in mind that mental illness is not just difficult for the person who has it, but it’s hard on the whole family. That is even more reason to talk about it. If we can provide support in any way, why wouldn’t we do it? That’s one of the most important things I want people to know.

Terri Howell is the principal of Hurricane Intermediate School in Hurricane, UT, and president-elect of the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals.