Mental illness is omnipresent in schools today, but it isn’t as well understood or managed as districts would hope. An October 2018 Education Week article stated that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 32 percent of adolescents have an anxiety disorder. This means that in a classroom of 24, eight students will suffer from clinical anxiety.
The difference between nervousness and anxiety
Often confused with nervousness, anxiety is believed to be a circumstantial, temporary feeling of worry that with coaching, breathing, and self-talk can be easily overcome. Unfortunately, although some iterations of anxiety present in such a fashion, most are generalized, overwhelming, and debilitating. Anxiety has triggers, which students can choose to work to avoid with strategies and support, but the existence of anxiety is not a choice.
Anxiety is a physiological imbalance in the brain, one that pumps too much serotonin through the nervous system. Although many of the things that provoke a student’s anxiety can be controlled, the onset of panic that comes from provocation cannot be regulated without professional interventions, medications, therapy, and/or counseling.
In schools today, anxiety is fast becoming a crisis. Unlike other illnesses, anxiety doesn’t present itself the same way in all students. For one, it may look like an upset stomach every morning; for another, it might be the inability to settle on which clothes to wear to school; and for a third, it could be shortness of breath and crying. Regardless of the symptoms, anxiety is an obstacle for anyone suffering.
Anxiety affects one out of every three students, so educators must prioritize the illness and find ways to help students be successful. Of course, this is much easier said than done. If anxiety looks different from one student to the next, then in a school of 900, it’s not a matter of coming up with one plan to help 300 students—it’s a matter of coming up with 300 different plans to help 300 different students.
Understanding anxiety—an illness unique to every sufferer—is a tall order for any educational leader. Finding impactful ways to address this crisis begins with having a wealth of practical resources.
7 resources to help us better understand anxiety
1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): an excellent resource for facts about, including tips to manage, anxiety. The ADAA also features success stories, podcasts, blogs, and webinars to promote wellness in the community.
2. The NAN Project: The story of this project is heart wrenching. In memory of Nancy “Nan” Cavanaugh, the NAN Project brings peer mentors to the community to talk about their personal stories of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Educators can contact the Nan Project through the website to schedule speakers to visit their schools for staff professional development, health classes, or school assemblies.
3. Exploring Mental Health: Raw, honest, and real, Exploring Mental Health explores emotional wellness from a multitude of angles. The hosts work together to remove the stigma of mental illness and educate listeners about the scope and pain of anxiety, depression, and mental illness. Past guests have included clinicians, mental-illness sufferers, co-founders of nonprofits raising money to promote emotional wellness, and experts on seasonal affect disorder.
4. The Anxiety Podcast: From breathing advice to discussions of the impact of certain foods on anxiety, creator and host Tim JP Collins is an open book when it comes to his personal story. Collin’s guests are experts on various aspects of mental illness, from PTSD to being a professional athlete with anxiety.
7 resources to help educators better understand mental health
5. My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel: Stossel brings readers into his world of debilitating anxiety in this book that will teach even those who suffer with anxiety a thing or two about the disease, My Age of Anxiety is a must read for anyone afflicted with anxiety or working with those who are.
6. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson: Wilson uses her struggle with anxiety to help readers better understand the disease and those who suffer. From practical advice to studying the lives of other, famous anxiety sufferers to investigating the history and facts of anxiety via expert interviews, Wilson teaches her readers about the real “beast” in her life: overwhelming anxiety.
7. The Anxiety Journal: The Anxiety Journal is exactly what it sounds like—a journal to use to manage/cope with anxiety. Whether purchasing it for yourself or for someone else, The Anxiety Journal is a journal of gratitude, self-care, and optimism. Each day, users are presented with a new, inspiring quote and drawing. From there they will be asked to reflect on things in their life larger than themselves. This journal works to manage anxiety by forcing a focus on gratitude. Anxiety is an illness of perspective and this journal helps you to change perspective.
Each of the resources listed above will help educators begin to establish the wealth of practical strategies needed to tackle the mental health epidemic in schools. If our task is to come up with 300 different plans to help 300 different students, then we have to begin one resource at a time.