Take it From the Teachers: Mental Health at IMSA, Teachers’ Perspectives

Cartoon of teachers | Source: Teach.com

As students, we have a very distinct viewpoint regarding mental health due to our own experiences. So let’s hear a perspective from the other side of the classroom! We’ve decided to interview five teachers to understand their perspective regarding IMSA and students’ mental health, in addition to hearing about their own experiences and mental health journeys. 

Academics and General Stress: 

IMSA students are faced with a multitude of stress factors that could significantly impact their mental health. For many, it is their first time living away from home, and having to adapt to a new environment can be very draining. Additionally, IMSA is known for its academic rigor, and students are expected to adapt to very different styles of learning. All of these elements in tandem can significantly influence a student’s mental health. One of IMSA’s biology teachers, Sarah O’Leary Driscoll, says that “The drive for perfection and loss of self-confidence when it isn’t achieved (which is actually pretty normal unless you’re a superhero) is a real challenge for some. Add on top of that the time crunch students feel, lack of sleep, socially and academically finding their ‘place’ here, living away from what may have been important support structures, dealing with the pandemic and the fallout from it, and just being teenagers with all the hormones and social stress that comes with that, and you get a perfect storm for mental health challenges to arise.” (O’Leary)

Spanish teacher Marta Kaluza agrees, explaining that, “academic rigor could be one of the reasons why [students] are feeling this way, but there are many other factors that could be contributing to their struggle. Usually, students write me emails or approach me because they’re not feeling well emotionally and, for me, that’s an automatic ‘go ahead and take some time for yourself.’” (Kaluza)

COVID-19 

Teachers agree there are numerous reasons why students could be struggling with their mental health. However, this year in particular has been very difficult for students due to COVID-19. Many students are personally affected by COVID, and going to school in a global pandemic can be exhausting. Here is what some teachers have to say about how COVID-19 has affected students at IMSA: 

  • “Overall, I think it’s had a negative impact… My biggest worries are actually for our juniors. Because they were online all of last year, they were not able to connect in the same ways [because of] not being in physical proximity to one another.  If they connected to each other outside of Zoom sessions at all, it was likely through texts, and messages, and Snapchats or whatever is the newest thing (I’m out of the loop!), not sitting next to each other working on a problem, or chatting about random stuff when there’s a free minute in class.” (O’Leary)  
  • “Last year, especially when we were at home, we were kind of in a state of limbo. There was no vaccine available until a year after we went into remote teaching. Students didn’t get to make the friendships or camaraderie that you see here in person. There was something missing from the Zoom element[,] and mental health last year was in serious need of care. And now with COVID the guidelines such as masks or not letting you be within 6 ft of each other, they hinder [interactions]. There’s still tension around everyone because of this thing hanging over us, an overwhelming international event that’s occurring.” (Zuidema)
  • “I am very glad to be teaching on campus this year, as opposed to holding classes virtually[,] because it is a lot easier to notice when a student is acting in a distressed way and needs some time for a mental health break. By interacting with students in and out of class, I have gotten to know them better and have come to understand when they’re feeling overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, stressed out, homesick, or something else that’s unique to their situation.” (Kaluza)  
  • “COVID and 18 months of remote learning dramatically affected students’ mental health. Obviously, there are numerous cases where students’ personal lives were affected by the pandemic which can make it hard to focus on academics. Just speaking to my own classroom, the biggest change I have seen is that students are less confident in their own abilities and still adjusting to in-person learning. After being on Zoom for so long, it is hard to remember how to effectively collaborate, seek help, manage your time, etc. This makes it even more difficult to catch up when you have fallen behind. I am hopeful we all get more used to it as the school year progresses and that students continue to seek out help when needed.” (Brummet)

Steps Taken: 

When interviewing these teachers, I made sure to ask what steps they’ve taken to acknowledge and aid students with their mental health struggles. It’s always nice to know that we have our teachers looking out for us. Here’s how some teachers work to provide students the support they need: 

  • “Personally, I keep a ‘module’ on Canvas for each of my classes called “mental health matters” that has resources, directions for getting support, and some research related to mental health. I try to point it out at the beginning of the term, so students know it’s something important to me, and hopefully that suggests I’m someone who they can talk to about it if they need to. At least, that is my hope!  It comes up more directly in some classes, like Biology of Behavior, because we actually study some chemicals and pathways related to mental health, but we try to make sure that we do that in [a] context that helps us to understand the human aspect of those topics.” (O’Leary)
  • “I shared my own mental health journey with my classes hoping that students in my own class feel comfortable. Sharing my story puts an olive branch out there to know that it’s possible to have better situations after depression and anxiety and that things worked out okay.” (Zuidema) 
  • “I try to be as accommodating and approachable as possible. I want students to be able to talk to me if they are having issues in or out of the classroom. I also try to be mindful about the weeks where students are particularly stressed-out so that I don’t pile on to their workload.” (Brummet)

Personal Experiences:

Everyone can have bad experiences in their lives, including teachers. In these interviews, a few were kind enough to share their personal experiences regarding their personal mental health journeys.

  • Ms. O’Leary spoke about her mental health journey saying, “I’ll ‘out’ myself again here, I have been diagnosed with clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. And it turns out, I’ve had it off and on my whole life! Who knew? Certainly not me!” She goes on to describe different aspects of her mental health journey, but the biggest takeaway is that “I get it. I may not understand someone’s specific struggles, but I know what it’s like to have to address them. I also realize that being sad is not the same as being depressed, but some of those positive coping mechanisms and skills can help either way. So I want to support everyone in their challenges.” (O’Leary)
  • Dr. Kind went back to her own high school days when answering about her mental health experiences. She explained that “It can be hard to keep perspective when you’re in high school. I was once injured during the track and field season and was so disappointed that I couldn’t compete at a meet. One of my coaches essentially told me: ‘It’s just one high school race’ and that memory has really stuck with me. It seemed SO monumental at the time, but with hindsight, it really wasn’t.” (Kind)
  • Profe Zuidema found a lot of joy in joining an aerial silks gym with Profe Kaluza! Over quarantine, many people have found themselves gaining weight and Profe spoke about her own struggle with weight and body dysmorphia. At first, she was skeptical about trying aerial silks, yet over time she found herself feeling more confident in her body. Something that one of her trainers said that stuck with her was, “We work out not because we hate our bodies but because we love our bodies.” (Zuidema)

Advice: 

Our teachers offer their final thoughts as they provide the biggest pieces of advice they have in regards to mental health: 

  • “First and foremost, if you are struggling with your mental health, reach out and talk to someone. We have amazing counselors, RCs, and teachers who want to help you. I’d also add that it’s okay to say no to something and I hope they consider their own mental health when they are scheduling their semester. I think it is better to take one less class/club so that you don’t feel like you are stretched too thin and are able to make the most of your experience at IMSA.” (Brummet)
  • “Be kind to yourself. We are oftentimes our own worst enemy, and in learning to be compassionate, sometimes the person you most need to be kind to is yourself.” (Zuidema)
  • “Life is messy, everyone will go through a time when it could help at some point in their life, and regularly checking in with your own mental health can be very important. I also don’t want students to do what I did, trying to figure things out themselves for far too long when there is a lot of help out there for them!” (O’Leary) 
  • “Don’t put so much pressure on yourself, and try to resist the pressure and expectations of others. There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ left to do after you finish with IMSA–you want to have the capacity to enjoy that as well!” (Kind)
  • “Listen to your inner voice. It will tell you what it is that you need the most and listen to that voice unashamedly…Take care of your mind and your emotions and praise yourself for everything you’ve been able to face and overcome.” (Kaluza) 

About the Author

nvarma
Nandana Varma is a junior from Elgin who lives in 03 B wing. Outside The Acronym she is interested in biology, math, and cooking. This is her first year on The Acronym and she joined The Acronym because of her passion for writing!

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