Mental Health ≠ Mental Illness

Irrespective of the health model that you use in class, you can’t escape the fact that mental health is intertwined with all other aspects of health. Historically teachers might have taught ‘about’ the topic of mental health, but we know students learn best when we take a more holistic approach, seeing the connections between health concepts. 

Regular conversations with our students about mental health are important so that they can best appreciate what healthy coping mechanisms they can implement, and understand when and how they can seek additional support and treatment. I am delighted that this week’s blog post comes from New Zealand educator Georgia Dougherty in which she shares her thoughts on mental health.

What is mental health?

Mental health, like physical health, fluctuates depending on many factors including our genetics and stressors in our lives. Considerable parts of mental health are self worth and self satisfaction, and how we are able to bounce back from difficult times (i.e. be resilient). As educators, and actually as human beings, it’s important we understand this, and do not confuse mental health with mental illnesses. Mental illnesses are when negative feelings (such as anger, anxiousness or sadness) become consistent over a long period of time, and disrupt someone’s overall wellbeing and daily functioning. This is when it is vital we seek help and interventions to support us.

So what actually are anxiety and depression?

I hear so many students say that they are depressed. Or say they can’t share their ideas to the class because they have anxiety. Or they are faced with both so can’t complete their tasks. Of course, there are students who face these difficulties every day, but there are many who do not understand anxiety and depression are diagnosed mental illnesses, not every day feelings. For this reason, we need to understand and actively teach the difference between feelings and mental illnesses. We all feel anxious at certain points of our lives like presentations in front of others, or stressed about juggling lots of tasks, or sadness like when we have a bad day. These feelings are normal. Very normal.

When feelings stress or anxiousness becomes chronic, overwhelming and/or persistent though, this is anxiety. Feelings of constant worry, being on edge, not being able to think clearly, excessive fear and concerns. These feelings take over the person’s ability to live their lives and complete what people without anxiety may consider as simple tasks. Consider a combination of overestimating a situation and underestimating one’s perceived ability to cope with the situation. 1 in 4 New Zealanders experience anxiety, thus a large number of our staff AND students have these constant worries every day. For some just getting to school is a huge deal.

Similarly, but also not at all the same, depression is a constant feeling of sadness and when someone generally loses interest in things they typically enjoy. It is common to confuse anxiety and depression, particularly when 1 in 5 New Zealanders experience both at the same time. But, they are different and the easiest way to think about the difference is constant worry compared to feeling miserable. This link may help give further clarity and information. Many have seen the metaphor of depression as a black dog, but it really highlights the impact the illness has on someone’s life, and helps students to understand.

So, what should we teach the students?

About feelings. What feelings are, how to recognize what makes us feel certain ways, strategies to prevent these feelings or reduce them when they arise, what the difference is between normal feelings and a mental illness and how/where to seek help. Not just happiness and sadness, but also self esteem, confidence, frustration, guilt, disappointment to name a few. We can’t keep having kids throw around the word depression, when they actually may not be depressed but are sad. Mental illnesses need to become normalized, not taboo, but they should not become so normalized that they are thrown around like everyone is diagnosed.

Our kids live in a high pressure world, with so many expectations. How to look, what grades to get, who to hang out with, when to start partying, where to go after school years, what to post on social media… It’s no wonder they are stressed. BUT they need to understand and accept these pressures are part of their lives and how to cope, how to be resilient. We don’t just know how to be resilient, or what resilience even is, so we need to be taught. Resilience, and how to be resilient differs for everyone, so it’s vital we teach students different strategies they can employ to persevere/bounce back/be resilient through various situations.

So what are some strategies to increase mental health?

A question with an answer which is individualistic. Because we all respond to situations in different ways, and feel different levels of emotions, we all require different strategies or interventions to support us to feel better, to be resilient. Some of the strategies I teach my students about include sleep, self talk, assertive communication, time management and mindfulness. There are dozens of websites and applications to support mental health too such as The Low Down, Reach Out, and Headspace (I’m sure there are others specific for other countries too). These strategies may be taught to students, but are useful for our own wellbeing too…

But, what about me and our staff?

Teacher wellbeing and teacher burnout are frequently referred to, but not actually spoken about, I believe. We do have heavy workloads, we do take on lots of roles, we do care a lot about our students – but we do also have lives outside of work. Teaching is more than a job, I would argue is a considerable part of our lifestyle and personality, but teaching is still a job. Therefore, like the students, we need to learn to recognize feelings, when these feelings become too much and then what to do about them to be able to manage. The above strategies (as well as many more) can support us to be able to manage our heavy workload, our 2am thinking about lessons and the days we should have stayed in bed but just couldn’t face writing the relief. We are people first. Teachers second. We often forget this, but like the importance of exercise and nutrition for physical health, we need to practice strategies for our mental health to reduce the chance of said burnout.

REMEMBER: Someone who is suffering from a mental illness is still a person. Is still the same friend/student/person you knew before they felt how they are feeling. Teachers are not trained counsellors, only counsellors are trained counsellors, so it’s not our job to counsel. However, it is our job to educate. To listen. To support. To be understanding. If you recognize someone is in need of professional help, whether they are 15 or 50, suggest strategies to support them, offer them places to go to seek help, and most importantly be a listening, non judgmental ear if and when they need it.

If you take anything from this post please let it be this: If anyone opens up to you, NEVER tell them they’ll be ok, to get over it or to ‘man up’ – just like you’d never say that to someone with a physical illness.

Georgia has previously blogged for #slowchathealth where she shared a health model that encapsulates the Māori philosophy of wellbeing in Te Whare Tapa Whā.

You might like to check out 20 iOS apps for meditation.

Remember, ALL teachers across the world get FREE access to the premium features of the Calm app. Find out more in Year of Calm.


9 thoughts on “Mental Health ≠ Mental Illness

  1. ilse1981

    This is brilliant. Well done.

    Ilse Fullarton The Children’s Health Project CIC Founder, CEO & Director

    A: Meadowcroft House, 182 Balcombe Road, Horley, Surrey, RH6 9ER E: W: M: +44 7841 206181

    Twitter: @kidshealthuk Facebook & Instagram: The Children’s Health Project


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