A special thank you to Kara for sharing her story this week and for the advice she includes in the post.
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Please note that this article discusses topics that may be triggers for some readers. Please take care of yourself and read this only if you are able to do so in a safe environment. Put your self-care first.
My experience with anxiety and panic
My dad had a stroke in March of 2017. About a week after my dad’s stroke, I started feeling a tingling sensation on the right side of my face. It would come and go so I did my best to simply ignore it. I had my first panic attack about a month after dad’s stroke. It was also becoming hard to ignore the tingling sensation in my face, which also sometimes extended down my right side to my fingertips. I made an appointment with my doctor and she diagnosed me with mild anxiety and a panic disorder. She prescribed medication, which helped alleviate the symptoms, but also encouraged me to work with a therapist. I began therapy about two weeks later and have been talking with a therapist regularly ever since.
This is a simple story – yet it is one that many leaders in higher education do not feel comfortable sharing. Every person has to live their own life and make their own decisions about what information they disclose and in what circumstances. I kept my struggles with anxiety and panic quiet within my family – not wanting to worry my dad who needed to focus on his own recovery at the time.
Let’s Have Open Conversations about Mental Health
Why do I share this with you today? First, it’s to make sure you know that you aren’t alone if you also have a mental health disorder/diagnosis. Second, it’s to do my tiny part in destigmatizing conversations about mental health. I’ve seen first hand the dangers of the judgment surrounding conversations about practicing self care for mental health. A supervisor once told me that I should be careful talking about my mental health and seeing a therapist because others might see me as weak. While I see acceptance, authenticity, and honesty as strengths, that supervisor didn’t and still doesn’t. That leader is not alone. According to the winter 2021 Health Minds survey, 45% of students surveyed nationally agree with the statement “Most people would think less of someone who had received mental health treatment.”
I am not alone in struggling with my mental health. While my battle is easily managed with medication and therapy, many others face far more challenging situations than mine. Even before COVID, institutions were taking a serious look at the mental health needs of their students – and in some cases the mental health of their faculty and staff. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 – 14 and aged 25 – 34 and it is the third leading cause of death among individuals aged 15 – 24. If you work with students – from elementary aged to the average adult age student population in community colleges, suicide is a very real issue that needs to be talked about on campus. According to the winter 2021 Healthy Minds survey, 23% of students nationally reported non-suicidal self-injury in the past year and 13% reported suicidal ideation. The Healthy Minds survey does skew to a generally younger student age and the degree program data shows that community college students are likely underrepresented in the survey data.
The State of Workforce Mental Health
The mental health and wellbeing of faculty and staff is at just as critical a point as that of students. Lyra Health recently published their 2022 State of Workforce Mental Health Report which opens with 7 insights – a few of which I’ve chosen to highlight or elaborate on here:
Just as in the Healthy Minds survey, mental health care needs, willingness to seek support, and whether or not mental health benefits are important to job seekers varies greatly by age range.
Employer and employee beliefs vary regarding whether current benefits effectively address employee mental health needs. 76% of employers think needs are met, while only 44% of employees would say that needs are met.
When employees do have dedicated mental health coverage, 82% believe their managers and leaders model mentally healthy behaviors and 72% of those same employers believe it is important that managers and leaders model mentally healthy behaviors.
Working caregivers – both those of children and of aging parents – have a higher probability of facing mental health challenges than their non-caregiving peers.
As leaders, we must build institutions where mental wellbeing is paramount. Most importantly, emotional safety must be an expectation. In a vast oversimplification of the research of Dr. Stephen Porges, when humans sense a threat, our nervous system’s first defense mechanism is fight or flight. We cannot interact effectively with others when we sense any sort of threat – including emotional threat.
What can you do? A few personal actions
I have tried to end the articles in this series with some actionable items. I’ve divided the actions associated with this article into two areas – personal actions and institutional actions.
Care for your own mental health and wellbeing. Work with appropriate medical and mental health professionals to care for your personal wellbeing. Additionally, examine your own emotional safety which may include areas such as setting boundaries, building capacity and strategies for exiting stressful situations, and more.
Examine your own beliefs about those who seek mental health treatment. Mental health is simply an element of overall health and wellbeing for each of us. Consider how you react to hearing that someone sees a therapist, takes medication for a mental health issue, and/or is experiencing anxiety. Examine your own beliefs and reactions and work to make these, at the very least, neutral.
What can you do? A few institutional actions
The following actions may require personal effort on your part. Additionally, if you are in a position of power or have leadership authority at your institution, you may be able to take specific action on these elements immediately. If not, advocate in spaces where you can keep these issues top of mind within your organization.
Advocate for and provide role clarity. Role clarity provides an element of emotional safety. If I know what is expected of me and where my boundaries are in doing my job, I can execute those requirements safely. I love the question from Brene Brown in Dare to Lead – “What does done look like?”. This is a great question to start a conversation with a team member when you’re delegating a project to them. Let them respond and then make sure your expectations are aligned. This could also be a personal action. Remember that “Clear is Kind” – also a Brene Brown quote. Be sure that you are being clear in your expectations and actions.
Model and encourage rests and breaks. The following is taken directly from the Lyra Health report, “Encourage and respect regular breaks, paid time off, and boundaries around workdays.” For some very interesting takes on this issue, I’ve been enjoying the current season, entitled @Work, of the NPR podcast Rough Translation.
Learn about your employee assistance program when you don’t need it. Make yourself aware of the mental health benefits available through your employee benefits program now. This can include your medical plan, employee assistance programs (EAP), and even some mental health specific plans. I’ll quote a dear friend here who had to avail herself of the EAP at her workplace. “The time you want to figure out what’s available in your EAP is when you DON’T need it. When you do need it, there is a crisis and you don’t have time to figure out what’s available.” This can also lead to a solid personal action which is to make sure colleagues who are benefits eligible are reminded of these types of benefits when they need them most. They may not think of these programs when they are in crisis and you can help them with nothing but a simple reminder.
Include mental health in your diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Ensure that there are mental health professionals and those who care deeply about the mental wellbeing of your entire campus community who are engaged in the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy teams of your campus community. This can include everything from those who care about neurodivergence among students, faculty, and staff to mental health professionals.
Include Trauma Informed, Culture of Care, and other relevant pedagogy in your professional learning opportunities. As you have the opportunity, advocate for and/or add trauma informed pedagogy, culture of care, and pedagogy for inclusive classrooms and inclusive teaching to the catalog of professional learning opportunities at your institution. While we are starting to see more and more higher education institutions embrace inclusive classroom strategies, my opinion remains that trauma informed pedagogy is being left to our K12 partners when trauma does not stop informing the life of the student simply because they graduated high school.
Kara Monroe is founder and president of Monarch Strategies, a consulting firm providing expert consulting to higher education organizations across the country as well as leadership development to organizations of all types. As president of Monarch Strategies, she also serves in several corporate advisory capacities including senior advisor to Packback, an educational technology firm that uses artificial intelligence to help students improve their writing. Prior to founding Monarch Strategies, Kara spent 25 years in education – both in the classroom and in institutional administration. Her most recent position was as the provost and senior vice president for student and academic experience at Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s 19 campus community college.