Tending Our Garden: The Importance of Mental Health

It’s that time of the year again—spring has sprung despite the health crisis we are currently experiencing. I first wrote this blog post for the (now canceled) April virtual tour that was supposed to occur in our building. As I attempted to redesign the event—that is what we are doing as a nation educationally, redesigning instruction, redesigning engagement, and redesigning what we do best as educators—I realized the message of supporting mental health is as poignant now as it was before. And as I have been working to accommodate our new reality, my thoughts continue to return to my garden.

Note: This post includes a discussion of suicide.

Tending Our Gardens

I have no green thumb, and yet I have installed a few tiger lilies in our yard. Tiger lilies are my favorite flower. Each year as they peek up, I am reminded of a few lessons about well-being that seem especially important personally and professionally.

For example, this past winter was extremely wet. I know I needed to plan accordingly for the healthiest tiger lilies. I don’t assume they are going to be okay, or I likely will have fewer bright beautiful lilies that bloom. I certainly don’t blame my flowers—each blossom and stalk only has the potential to bloom. It is the conditions of my garden, and my ability to appropriately support the bulbs that peek through the soil, that determine if each reach their potential.

The tallest stalks often need the same supports as the weakest ones at the onset: some sort of stake to be connected to in order to support their growth or else the weight of the bulb becomes too great. Are the tall stalks providing too much shade for the smaller stalks? Sometimes I need to adjust their placement or move a few stalks. Once I finally recognized that a change in my environment was more impactful than blaming my tiger lilies or hoping for the best, my garden has never been the same, with a tremendous amount of blooms to enjoy.

As educators, we have become better at recognizing and responding when our students are not growing and supporting each other appropriately. What we often miss is those signs and symptoms from our highest achievers and from students who are not acting out in typical ways as they deal with anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, depression, and other mental health challenges.

We need to do better by all of our students. My son is a high-achieving student in a high-achieving school. He doesn’t present as unhappy; he has a supportive family. By all accounts, he raises no flag—and he was, and sadly is, suffering greatly. Prior to his first attempt to take his own life, we all missed the signs and symptoms. He was not prepared with the tools to deal with his struggles and felt alone and burdened by his and some of his friends’ mental health challenges.

We all have had students like my son in our schools. We all have students and families dealing with mental health challenges. What supports are we putting in place to support our students before they go into crisis? How are we creating opportunities to build our school happiness agency and mental health supports to increase our students’ protective factors as they grow in our buildings?

A Mindset Shift

Having a school that provides opportunities for happiness agency means recognizing that mental health does not look the same for every community. Like our gardens where the needs vary due to climate, location, and soils, our student and community needs can be different due to many factors. Providing a comprehensive approach that begins with acknowledging the needs of our community and then diversifying training, opportunities, and access for our entire community takes a shift in mindset. The key is remembering that we cannot blame our students for how they respond to their environment.

When our school was selected to be a pilot school for Teen Mental Health First Aid, we were elated. This was not a decision we took lightly, nor the first step in our process. Sarah Pyle Academy (SPA) has been focused on overall well-being, happiness agency, and mental health supports as a primary focus of preparing our students for life after SPA. Our school is grounded in the power of our relationships and overall well-being through a highly personalized approach.

Students acknowledge trauma through the adverse childhood experiences assessment as we plan and align protective factors to mitigate risk. Students reflect on their academic and well-being progress, including tracking habits that can affect their mood, anxiety, or productivity. We have a strong and ongoing partnership with the National Alliance of Mental Illness that allows us to offer continued training, service, support, and opportunities from presentations to physical resources.

Every classroom houses a calming zone or activity for students (and staff) to use as needed to regulate emotions and focus. Our mental health providers are an active part of our leadership team as we make decisions impacting our students and staff. Our entire SPA team participated in several mental health awareness training sessions, including Youth Mental Health First Aid (yMHFA), and all have participated in several years of coaching and ongoing professional development targeting growing our social-emotional skills and happiness agency toolkit.

Empowering Student Voice

Our students were ready to be a more active part of our solution, and their voices are saving lives. Giving students the tools to identify and respond when a friend or they themselves may be struggling or in crisis and equipping them with the knowledge and skills to foster their own wellness and support for each other is empowering. Having our entire school trained in order to be an extension of that support has proven critical.

MHFA is not the only opportunity we use to build a healthy school environment or opportunities for happiness agency. It is just one piece of our plan. Modeling the importance of our priority to overall health and well-being through the commitment of this training and continuing support of all of our students will hopefully demonstrate that everyone in our school community matters, that we can be the difference, and that it’s okay to not be okay. Our students are resilient, and the earlier we can identify and connect them with appropriate support, the more likely they will recover and thrive.

Back to the Garden

Along with all the uncertainty we’re now facing, one thing that has truly changed is that I will likely find time in my garden this spring. It will be just as important when we return to our schools, as it is now, that we focus on all of our students and staff. That we do not attempt to fix or compensate for the grief we are all experiencing. That we build a solid toolkit to access when—not if—issues arise, and we develop an understanding and awareness of when we need to elicit assistance from professionals to appropriately support our community. That we take time to look at our students who seem to be adapting, as well as those who are visibly crying out for help, so we do not overlook any warning signs. And that we build from this experience a solid foundation in which mental health and overall well-being is always our focus.

Mental health challenges impact many of us personally and professionally. How are you bringing more awareness, modeling destigmatizing behaviors, and providing opportunities for your communities to grow stronger mentally?

Kristina MacBury is principal at Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, DE. She is an author, speaker, leadership coach, and advocate for school happiness agency. She is a 2018 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and in 2017 was named a Top 30 Technologist, Transformer, and Trailblazer by the Center for Digital Education. Follow her on Twitter (@MacBuryKristina) and visit her blog at http://educate4hope.com/blog.

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