When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments — tenderness for what he is and respect for what he may become.
Less than two months in, this year has been marked by news stories centered on emotional wellness in schools.
One of these stories offers a glimpse of what’s possible:
An integrated approach to preventive behavioral health care has been funded as part of New York Governor Cuomo’s initiative to transform the emotional wellness landscape for children, adults, and families.
Another story highlights the tenuous ground on which our conversations about emotional wellness currently rest.
And the implications of ignoring these conversations.
In the wake of a tragedy like the Parkland school shooting, there is a strong, collective impulse to speculate about the mental health of others.
Such speculation is very good at achieving the following:
- It obscures fact, escalates panic, and creates confusion.
- It spreads misinformation and perpetuates mental health stigma.
- It dehumanizes, and elevates existing risk for, individuals living with mental illness (the vast majority of whom are more likely to be victimized than to ever perpetrate violence themselves).
- It discourages help-seeking behavior in all of us.
But if meaningful change is what we’re after, we must move beyond speculation and fear.
We must take clear, consistent, positive action.
Read on for 3 types of action you can begin taking TODAY to support emotional wellness in schools (and beyond):
1. Recognize subtle forms of harm.
It’s only by becoming familiar with poisons that you can make the best antidotes.
When “mental health” is discussed alongside words like “violence,” “risk,” and “danger,” we instinctively shift into a reactive, defensive stance.
That’s natural. It’s simply how we’re wired as humans.
But if we’re focused entirely on identifying the overt threats to health and safety, we miss the more subtle threats that surround us every day.
Before we can interrupt them, we must acknowledge them.
What you can do:
- Educate yourself about current mental health statistics.
- Take note of the ways you (purposely or unintentionally) glorify stress, overwork, and “busyness”.
- Opt out of (online and in-person) speculation about the mental health of an individual.
- Check your language concerning mental health (e.g., terms like “crazy”, “psycho”, “savage”, etc. are rooted in a history of oppression within the mental illness community).
- Shift the focus in conversations, from speculation about the perpetrator to the emotional wellness needs of all people.
- Seek additional support in navigating conversations about mental health, mental illness, etc.
2. Model the emotional wellness you wish for our kids.
There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.
Want to see greater emotional wellness in schools?
Start with you.
What you can do:
- Be patient with yourself. Practice self-compassion.
- Take a serious look at your self-care.
- Practice gratitude (even when it’s hard).
- Set healthy boundaries around your time, resources, and emotional energy.
- Learn to say “No”.
- Practice empathy, respect, and appropriate limits when a loved one is struggling.
- Consider how you might benefit from therapy; seek a therapist’s support if needed.
3. Help create a culture of emotional wellness in schools.
Is there anyone that does not need to navigate uncertainty and risk on a regular basis? To be alive is to be vulnerable; to be a leader is to be vulnerable every minute of the day. You don’t get to opt out.
Recognizing more subtle risks and improving your own emotional wellness are two important steps toward promoting emotional wellness in schools.
The next step is identifying a concrete action you can take to change the school culture.
And then taking it.
What you can do:
- Pause to answer honestly when a friend asks how you’ve been doing. Let your kids overhear.
- Avoid placing value judgments on emotions (e.g., “happiness is good,” “sadness is weak”).
- Don’t apologize for, or excuse away, your own need for therapy or self-care.
- Start recommending self-care resources (e.g., books, apps, activities, the name of a therapist) to interested friends like you would a new restaurant or Netflix show.
- Volunteer for the PTA or other school-community board at your kids’ school. Advocate for speakers, programming, and other resources that promote emotional intelligence, preventive behavioral health habits, resiliency-building skills, etc. Help plan, raise funds for, and host these resources in the school.
- Facilitate connections between school administrators and emotional wellness resources within the community.
- Express interest in the inclusion of emotional wellness content at school health/wellness fairs. (Or suggest a fair dedicated primarily to emotional wellness.) Volunteer at the fair. Attend as a family. Invite friends.
- Stand in solidarity with school administrators and other personnel as they advocate for resources and policies that promote their own emotional wellness and the emotional wellness of students.
- Plan gifts for teachers and other school personnel that reinforce rest and self-care.
- Contact your state and local representatives to request increased financial and legislative support of emotional wellness in schools.
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Emotional wellness in schools begins with emotional wellness in individuals.