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Mental Health During Covid - Part 1: Anxiety in Schools

I don't know about you, but Spring Break came around mid-March in my school district, and I was LIVING for it! I needed the rest more than I had realized and I was exhausted. Along with spring break came new Covid-19 rules; no more intimate get-togethers, restaurants closed, travel plans cancelled, and a whole lot of "me" time.

At first, I thought "okay, maybe this is just what I needed!" As a person who always seems to have something going on, it felt like this was the Universe's way of saying to me and everyone else, "Take a damn break!"

So I did.

I read, slept, exercised, walked, listened to music and podcasts... And even found myself trying to think of the extra time as an "extended Spring Break," realizing that even amidst the craziness and fear, maybe having space was a gift too.

March came and went, and as quarantine and isolation continued, I began to notice a whole new experience. Anxiety is not new to me - I've experienced anxiety for several years now, but this was different. It was anxiety, depression, and a large dose of loneliness.

I found myself worried about when I would see my students, friends, and family again (anxiety) but I was also feeling so much regret for taking opportunities for face-to-face connection for granted before (depression). As a self-proclaimed extrovert, I quickly felt the effects of self-isolation.

During this time, I also began to get emails from students expressing their own stresses about Covid. Some were related to school and fears about grad, scholarships, and our spring show, while others were fears of death, loss of family members, and worries about not having enough food.

Students were expressing very real, understandable and normal responses to an abnormal situation.

During Covid, there has been an increase in mental health crises; such as addictions, overdose, suicidality, anxiety, and depression. We know this because we have lived it. Whether we have a history of mental health concerns ourselves or not, we have experienced a collective trauma, and this may make it more difficult to notice signs of struggle in our students.

There's a collective vibration of fears coupled with grief and loss and we are all sitting with it every day.

With some schools returning to full time learning and others returning to part time, teachers are now left trying to adapt to these evolving circumstances with little understanding of how, and to a room full of students still experiencing all of the above worries.

So we're left considering "How will anxiety presentations have evolved with Covid?"

Many of the typical symptoms will remain the same (if you want more detailed info on anxiety and depression presentations, take a look at Podcast Episode 3); however, we'll be in a position where we may have to notice symptoms from behind a mask and see it behind theirs.

Though it's not the responsibility of the teacher to diagnose and treat anxiety and depression, students are often seeing their teacher for more hours of the day than they are seeing their parents. Therefore, it is important for the teacher to notice and respond accordingly.

Anxiety doesn't occur in a vacuum. It is a natural response that our body creates to alert us to danger or potential danger - it's important! However, we've gotten to the point where we villianize anxiety and look for ways out of the discomfort, rather than looking at anxiety as a rational response to a stressful event or, in Covid's case, ongoing trauma.

Therefore, we don't need to be quick to diagnose it, but we can acknowledge it! And teachers can play an important role in normalizing the experience for our students. Knowing the signs and having conversations about it can help students understand what is going on in their bodies and minds.

I encourage teachers to start to let students in on these signs before these responses begin to feel unmanageable to you and your students. Transparency is key when normalizing an experience!

Chances are, you're also feeling many of the responses to anxiety and depression I've listed above. Again, this is OKAY!! Without downloading your feelings onto your students you can model ways of moving through these processes, rather than running away from them. You can model that anxiety is a wave, not a permanent state, and that it's okay to take a moment to yourself to allow the feelings to pass naturally.

Some ways to do this would be:

  • Collective Box Breathing throughout the day to give students a strategy and reinforce that their feelings are normal and valid.

  • Get outside! Sit in nature or let kids play in nature!

  • Remind students to drink water! Drinking water actually helps to flush cortisol - the hormone that spikes during an anxious event.

  • Talk about it when students want to, but don't dwell on it! Give them space to process, validate their feelings, do a collective box breath, and then move on. Model the importance of both sitting with it and the possibility of moving on from it.

  • Note the moments in the day when things seem light and remind you of simpler times. Let students see that you remember what it was like before, and you miss it, but that these moments do still exist!

  • Make sure you take opportunities to check in with yourself. Are you seeing a student's anxious response, or are you projecting your own because you're having a difficult day? Learn the difference and ask yourself this question regularly.

Even as Covid goes away, our students will be left with the trauma for a long time. Some will recover faster, some will need more time; either way, anxiety and depression, regardless of circumstance, are normal, healthy responses and the more we can remind students of that, the healthier they will feel.

If you want more information about this topic, you can listen to Episode 3 of my Podcast, or subscribe - I'll talk about mental health a lot:-) My next podcast episode will be about grief and loss during a pandemic!

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