Knowing how to talk about mental health is tricky under the best of circumstances. Lately, however, we’ve been facing all of the usual teacher stressors in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. People are polarized and angry and exhausted. It’s a tough time to be a teacher.
So how do we approach a fellow teacher when we see them struggling? It can feel too invasive and personal, but it can also be one of the most important conversations we can have. With that in mind, below are ten ways to talk about mental health when you don’t know where to begin.
1. It’s OK to start with small talk
Even if they’re a friend, it can be nerve-wracking to talk to someone about their mental health. Luckily, the easiest way to start is with some small talk. Not many people are going to open up right away, so find a time when you can chat for more than just a minute or two. Start with the basics, “How are you?” and “How’s your year going so far?” From there, you can ask more specific questions. Your colleague will be more likely to share once the conversation is going.
2. Ask about something specific
Try to pinpoint a specific topic you know your colleague has been dealing with recently. Asking, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you how you’ve been doing since your youngest left for college?” is likely to yield much more than just asking them about their mental health. It also shows that you recognize situations in their life that might be causing them stress.
3. Avoid “mental health” if it feels loaded
The term “mental health” can make people uncomfortable. If it feels like it might shut down communication, try using a different approach. A simple “How’s your stress been this year?” instead of “Have you been feeling stressed or anxious lately?” can put some people at ease. Remember, you’re trying to show your friend you care and you’re concerned, not diagnosis them during a short conversation in the teacher’s lounge.
4. Make sure you listen more than you talk
Many of us talk too much when we’re nervous or when we truly care about a topic. Prepare yourself for talking less during this conversation. If your colleague opens up to you about how they’re doing, make sure you support them by actively listening. You’re not there to diagnose or to swap stories about “who’s more stressed.”
5. Ask about activities rather than feelings
Teachers’ mental health is a deeply personal topic. Many people are not going to feel comfortable disclosing feelings of anxiety and depression to anyone, let alone a coworker. Focus your conversation on activities instead of emotions. Topics like how well they have been sleeping, if they’ve been eating, if they’re struggling to keep up with grading (more than usual!), etc., are often easier to talk about than specific feelings or fears.
6. Offer to help with small, specific tasks
Your friend might brush off initial discussions about their mental health. They might not be prepared to discuss them with others or even be aware of how visible their behaviors are to others. You can’t force someone to deal with their mental health concerns, but you can try to help with some of the tasks that might be adding stress or anxiety. Offer to make copies for them if you’re headed to the copier, pick up their mail when you’re grabbing yours, let them know that you get coffee every Wednesday and would love to grab one for them too. Little acts of kindness go a long way. Let your fellow teacher know that you are sincere in your concern but won’t push them to discuss it before they’re ready.
It’s important to note here that you should be cautious about offering to help others if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself. Be fair to them (and yourself!) by being honest about how much you can realistically do.
7. Don’t get offended if you’re rebuffed
Some individuals have been taught that struggling with depression or anxiety is a weakness. Many people feel they should “tough it out” quietly and privately. Others may be embarrassed that you noticed anything at all. Prepare yourself for your colleague not wanting to talk about it with you yet, if ever. If that occurs, just let them know that you care about them, you know they’re a great teacher, and that you’re here for them if they ever need you. Sometimes, that’s all a person needs to hear.
8. Be discreet with your concerns
Teachers tend to be sharers. We survive the challenges of our profession by venting to trusted colleagues and laughing with friends over the unbelievable things that happen in our rooms. Teachers’ mental health concerns, however, should never be a topic of discussion with anyone other than the person themselves. Your concern means very little if you share private information with others without permission. Show your friend that you can be trusted with their private struggles by refraining from discussing them with anyone else.
9. Accept you might not know what’s best
Your coworker might be acting out of the ordinary. They might be visibly struggling. You might feel very strongly that they need to speak to a therapist, begin taking medication, or seek some other type of assistance. That being said, they might not see things the same way. Maybe they are going to through a low spot but feel they’ll come out of it in one piece. Maybe they’re already seeking help and don’t feel like sharing that information with you. Accept that you might not walk away from the conversation feeling like you accomplished much of anything at all. Showing that you care and letting them know that you’re there for them is enough. In fact, it’s probably more than anyone else has done.
10. Treat them like you always have
Once you’ve had the conversation, thank your friend for trusting you (even if they didn’t share much), and let them know that you’re there for them if they ever want to talk more, need a favor, or even need help finding more support. After that, be diligent in interacting with your friend in a typical way. No one wants someone hovering around them asking if they’re OK all the time. Check in every once in a while, but keep it light and friendly.