jannavmiller@gmail.com'

About Janna Miller & Chris Brownson

Janna Miller was a 2007 corps member in the Mississippi Delta region. She taught 4th grade during her two years in the corps and then stayed in Mississippi a third year and taught 5th grade ELA. Before joining Teach For America, she majored in psychology. After teaching, she joined the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Chris Brownson is a former corps member (LA '93) and a licensed psychologist. After his two years teaching, he promptly returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to pursue graduate work in counseling psychology. He received my Ph.D. in 2001 and is now a licensed psychologist in the State of Texas, the director of the University of Texas Counseling & Mental Health Center, and the National Mental Health Consultant for TFA.

8 Tips for Finding a Mental Health Professional

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Now that we’re almost halfway through the school year, it’s a good time to step back and ask yourself how you’re doing with your mental health. There’s no doubt in my mind that the semester was hard. And there were probably particular periods in the classroom that felt like lows. Were you able to harness resources (both personally and by reaching out to those around you) to manage your teacher stress and wellbeing?

With winter break ahead, now might be a good point to invest some time in locating a counselor to work with next semester. Because finding a mental health professional can be a difficult process, below are some tips on what to look for:

  • Finding a good therapist is a bit like buying a new car: you want to find one that meets your needs, it probably requires a little research, and taking it for a test drive and kicking the tires is probably a good idea, too.
  • There are a bunch of different types of mental health professionals, so it can be confusing. In short: 1) psychiatrists are medical doctors (MD) who primarily prescribe medication for treatment. Some also engage in talk therapy; 2) psychologists are doctoral (PhD) level providers who provides counseling, psychotherapy, and assessment, but typically do not prescribe medication (this varies state-to-state); 3) Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed professional counselors (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) all have master’s degrees in their respective areas and provide counseling and psychotherapy; and  4) primary care providers, or family doctors, while not actually mental health providers, often prescribe psychiatric medications.
  • You want to make sure the person you’re seeing is licensed by your state, as this ensures they have met the minimum standards in their field to provide competent services to you. Search for the provider on your state’s licensing board for physicians, psychologists, and licensed therapists.
  • Choose which type of professional based on whether you would like to be evaluated for medication or engage in talk therapy and learn new strategies for coping and addressing mental health symptoms. The most important thing is that you engage the process of getting help. If you see one provider and determine that your needs for treatment might benefit from a slightly different angle, the person will make a referral.
  • You can begin to gather a list of possible providers by determining who is covered by your insurance carrier, perhaps by visiting your insurance’s website and searching mental health benefits. Word of mouth is a great way to find a good provider, and it is definitely appropriate to ask around if any of your friends or colleagues know of any good therapists.
  • Your primary care provider may be able to prescribe medication for mental health concerns if you have uncomplicated depression or anxiety issues. However, for more complex mental health concerns, such as suicidal thinking or multiple mental health issues, or for help determining which diagnosis best fits your situation, a psychiatrist should definitely be consulted. If you aren’t sure, you can always ask your primary care provider.
  • Your first session with a counselor or therapist can be used to get to know your provider and determine if you think his or her working style will be a good fit for your needs. It is perfectly appropriate to enter into a first therapy session with some skepticism, not knowing if it is something you want to do. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions such as “what is your view on how psychotherapy works” or “what is a typical psychotherapy session like with you?”
  • Pastoral counseling, often with a provider who is a religious/spiritual leader, can be an excellent option, particularly if your concerns are of a religious or spiritual nature. However, if you are exhibiting symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression, more severe anxiety, disordered eating, substance abuse, etc., then seeing a licensed mental health professional is the best option.

It can be a challenge to figure out the best way to get help for a mental health concern. If you have questions about the process, please feel free to reach out to me at jannavmiller@gmail.com.

 

The Holiday Spirit: Winter Break Is Around the Corner

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Thanksgiving break provided a much-needed respite from an incredibly busy semester. And now, the end is in sight. There are only a number of weeks before the semester is over and you will have the winter break to spend time with loved ones, tend to things you’ve been putting off (hello dentist!), and finally get some real rest.

As we approach this time of the year, I want to encourage you to take time to reflect on the semester. During this time, it can be easy to develop tunnel vision, to plow ahead, wrap up the semester, and not think about anything except making it to break. But, now is also a time rich with opportunity to make meaning of the experiences you’ve had this semester.

When you think back on the semester, what comes to mind? Which experiences stand out? If you’re like me, the first things that come to mind will probably be the struggles—how hard management has been, that time you really “blew up” at your students, the practice state test that did not go well. But, after thinking about those things, remind yourself of the things that have gone well. Is there a “problem student” that you were able to reach? Are there students who have made academic progress that you’re really proud of. Which lesson plans or units have gone well? It is easy to remember the times that we fail or the struggles we have, but it is important to remind yourself of success, too.

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Now take this reflection even one step further: connect your experiences this year to your larger values and goals. What have you learned about yourself as a person? Often we grow the most through hardship. How have the challenges you’ve experienced this semester changed you? Do you still feel connected to the reason you chose to teach in the first place? What was this reason? If you feel disconnected from this, why? How might you reconnect with the values that drew you to this job?

Congratulations on making it through the semester. You have worked incredibly hard and you deserve a break. I hope you have a wonderful winter break and that you are able to spend time reflecting on the many meaningful experiences you’ve had over the past six months.

Teaching Isn’t All Gold Stars and Red Apples

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One of the more difficult experiences I had while teaching was seeing a side of myself that I didn’t know existed. A side that yelled, that was sarcastic with kids, and that felt incredibly angry. This happens to all of us when we teach, especially in the beginning years when management is particularly challenging. We find ourselves doing things we didn’t realize were within our capabilities—engaging in power struggles with 11-year-olds, rolling our eyes, and even crying in front of our class (yes, I’ll admit—I did this).

Because the end of the semester can be a time when we feel particularly worn thin and are perhaps more prone to such experiences, I want to use this post to offer some ideas for managing emotions so that you can deal with times you act out of character and perhaps even avoid them in the first place.

First, I want to start by normalizing the experience. Teaching is incredibly stressful and it is inevitable that you will sometimes act in ways you are not proud of. If you have a particularly frustrating day with your kids, rather than beat yourself up about the experience or spend all night analyzing what you could have done differently, try practicing a little self-compassion. Remind yourself how hard you’re working, how tired you are, and remember that tomorrow is a new day full of new possibilities.

Second, I want to encourage you to tune into your emotions and address them in productive ways. Our emotions serve as a sort of barometer for how we are doing generally. If we check in with our emotions, we can use them as information to let us know if we need to make any adjustments, or maybe reach out for help. For instance, are you noticing that you have been feeling increasingly irritable lately? This can be a sign that you may be physically tired or that you are worrying about something in the future. Notice the irritation and then ask yourself what may be responsible for it. Once you have some ideas, you can come up with a plan to address it: focus on getting more sleep, make some time to work on an upcoming project you are worried about, find a friend to share your worries with.

Negative emotions are not something to be afraid of. Instead, they can be viewed as helpful information that should be used to alter our actions so that we take care of our mental needs. This will allow us to be the best teachers we can be and the best humans we can be.

Photo by: Denise Krebs

Three Minute Breathing Space

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(Photo Credit: Camdiluv)

Sometimes, life can get so busy that we function on automatic pilot just to get through our day.  But wouldn’t it be great if we had a reset or a “clear” button, like the kind you find on calculators, just to wipe the slate clean and view our world with fresh eyes?  After all, if you don’t reset your calculator prior to running calculations, the results will be off.

Here’s a quick exercise called the 3-Minute Breathing Space, adapted from psychologists Segal, Williams & Teasdale, to help you quickly reset:

Step 1: Find a comfortable seating position. Sit up straight, but not overly rigid, in a chair or on the floor.  Close your eyes.  Now, ask yourself:

  • What is my experience at this moment?  
  • What are my thoughts?  
  • My feelings?  
  • My physical sensations?  

Just acknowledge and notice your experience, without attempting to change it in any way, even if it is unpleasant or unwanted.

Step 2: Gently direct your attention to your breath, perhaps noticing the sensation of the air as it moves across your nostrils for each inhale and exhale. Use your breath as an anchor. You will likely find your mind wandering, and this is normal, just continue returning your attention to the experience of your breath in this moment.

Step 3: After doing this for a minute or two, expand your awareness beyond your breathing: examine your sense of your body as a whole, your posture, your facial expression.  Perhaps visualize yourself seated in the chair in the room.  When you are ready, you can open your eyes and carry on about your day.

The task is not to see how long you can stay focused on your breath, but rather to repeatedly return your attention to the breath if the mind wanders. And trust me, it will wander.

Doing this exercise once daily, or even just now and then when you really need it, will help you to have more clarity and approach your day with greater awareness.

Remember, you can’t find the right answer if you haven’t first reset your calculators!

Source: Segal, Z. V, Williams, J. M.G, & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. The Guilford Press.

 

Teaching As A Marathon, Not A Sprint

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(Photo Credit: lisaclarke)

I recently received the following in an email from an alumnus who stayed to teach for a third year:

“I am very interested in finding a way to create a sustainable, healthy lifestyle as a teacher. I want to both be an excellent teacher and to have a healthy, balanced personal life – I figure that is the only way I can succeed as a teacher in the long term.”

This is a great goal. Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession. As a first and second year teacher, I remember feeling like there was always work I could be doing. If I let myself, I could literally work around the clock and I still wouldn’t be able to accomplish everything that I felt needed to be done.

In order to make teaching a sustainable pursuit it’s important to approach teaching as a marathon, not a sprint. Coping with non-sustainable strategies is self-defeating, they simply cannot be maintained. For example, when I was teaching, one strategy I adopted was to stay up late working on lesson plans. As a result, I would get very little sleep. I quickly realized that I was actually performing worse in the classroom because I was not getting adequate sleep. I had to force myself to adopt the habit of making sure I got at least seven hours of sleep each night. Taking time to set up good habits now can help you handle the stress and pace of the school year.

Consider the analogy of preparing your classroom for the school year: you take pain-staking care to set up your classroom just the way you want it before the first day of class, building a tone in your classroom to create organization and structure that will help you to be successful.

Similarly, you need to take care to set up a structure that will allow you to manage the stress of this school year. If you set in place healthy habits and a workable routine now—such as eating right, exercising, finding time for yourself—you’ll be better able to maintain that routine when it’s “go time” during the semester.

I make few guarantees because I know better, but I will guarantee you this: taking some time out of every day for your own self-care will make you a more successful teacher.

How you set up your life for success is really for you to decide. Whether it’s hanging out with other corps members, going for a run, finding a spiritual/religious community, meeting someone not in an education profession, napping, checking out your Facebook newsfeed, taking a moment to just stop and breathe, or watching reruns of Modern Family, the important thing is that you make time for self-care. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so plan to take care of yourself in the best way you know how.

To answer the question posed by the alumnus who emailed me—in order to create a sustainable lifestyle as teachers, we must make time for activities and routines that rejuvenate us.

How do you make time for self-care during the school year?

 

Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 2: Positive and Negative Coping

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Last week’s post addressed how to determine whether you or someone you know might has a problematic relationship with alcohol. This week, we want to discuss alcohol use within the larger context of coping.

Coping is anything we do to manage stress. There are positive coping mechanisms and negative coping mechanisms. Positive coping lands us in a better place to address the problem at hand. Negative coping strategies, on the other hand, are those that don’t address our stressor in any way.

How does alcohol fit into this? What’s tricky about alcohol is that, like most things, it has both positive and negative effects.

What are the negative effects?
• Excessive alcohol intake is an established risk factor for several cancers.
• Alcohol is addictive. A recent study of addictive substances showed that alcohol is less addictive than nicotine, crystal meth, and crack, but more addictive than heroin, intranasal amphetamine, cocaine, and caffeine.
• Alcohol disrupts sleep. It can help you fall asleep, but alcohol increases the incidence of sleep disruptions.
• Alcohol promotes bad eating. Everyone who’s ever gotten at least a buzz from a glass or two of wine or a mixed drink has felt the often irresistible urge to snack.
• Alcohol is a depressant. This means that even though we often turn to alcohol for a boost, it actually depresses our body and our mood.

What are the positive effects?
• Numerous studies show that moderate drinking can have positive effects on heart health.
• A drink before a meal can improve digestion.
• The social and psychological benefits of alcohol can’t be ignored: it can be a soothing end to a stressful day and the occasional drink with friends can be a nice way to socialize.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that it is important to ask yourself which function alcohol is serving for you. Are you drinking moderately and engaging in activities that are rejuvenating for you? Or is alcohol helping you avoid your stressors? Alcohol can be a really nice addition to our lives or it can have pretty devastating consequences. It is worth considering whether we are using it for positive or negative coping.

Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 1: Defining the Problem

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(Photo Credit: rogue3w)

Over the last several years, as Chris and I have worked together on TFA’s National Mental Health Team, we have fielded a number of questions related to alcohol and substance use in the corps. These questions generally center around: what is the difference between being a low-risk social drinker or a high-risk drinker? After all, not all drinking is bad. One of the biggest challenges in dealing with concerns related to alcohol is determining whether or not a problem exists.

Let’s start by looking at the difference between low-risk drinkers and high-risk drinkers.

Signs that you may be a low-risk drinker:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends:
o   Women have one drink per day or seven in a week.
o   Men have no more than two drinks per day or fourteen in a week.

 All of the above recommendations are based on standardized definitions, where one drink equals:
o   12 oz. of regular beer
o   5 oz. of wine
o   1.5 oz. (a shot) of 80 proof liquor.

Signs that you may be a high-risk drinker:
o   Are you finding that during the weekends you often binge drink at a party and spend half the weekend trying to recover?
o   Have you started to rely on a few beers at night in order to calm your nerves?
o   Do you ever find yourself driving after having a bit too much to drink?

How can you know whether you are a low risk social drinker or possibly a high risk drinker?
  First, it helps to know the real number of “drinks” you consume. Want to know how many “drinks” are in that cosmo or screwdriver? You can use the drink calculator to find out.
o   If you are unsure how your alcohol consumption stacks up, this tool from the NIAAA helps you size up your level of risk based on your alcohol consumption habits. Plug in how much you drink and how often, and it can help you determine whether your drinking pattern is no risk, low risk, increased risk or highest risk.

If you are concerned that you or someone you know might have a serious problem with alcohol:
o   Check out the following guidelines on what qualifies as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence: http://www.wright.edu/rsp/Security/Eap/Alcohol.htm. If these guidelines apply to you or someone you know, you might consider reaching out to a counselor or making use of AA resources within your region.

Tune in next week for “Your Relationship with Alcohol Part 2: Self-Care.” In this post we will discuss sustainable ways to incorporate positive coping habits into your routine to avoid feeling the need to rely on maladaptive coping, such as excessive alcohol consumption.

How’s Your Sleep?

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(Photo credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig)

Getting enough sleep can be extremely challenging. For most people, two conditions must be met before we can fall asleep: 1) we must be tired and 2) we must be relaxed. As teachers, the feeling of being tired is probably not the problem. I bet you are exhausted! Instead the challenge to your sleep may be due to factors that hinder you from being able to relax. Such factors include stress (feeling like you should stay up working), anxiety (worrying about a particular student), and daily habits (drinking large amounts of caffeine). Your level of relaxation at bedtime is something you can influence. Here are some tips that should help you relax so that you can get to sleep:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day — I know this is a tough one, but it creates an expectation and habit for your body that will really aid in your ability to sleep
  • Bed is for sleep (and sex)…and that’s it — You want your brain to have an association between the bed and sleeping. Don’t confuse your brain by grading papers in bed, watching TV in bed, eating in bed, or reading in bed. All of those activities should be done elsewhere.
  • Don’t consume caffeine or nicotine past the mid afternoon — This really varies from person to person, but if you’re having difficulty sleeping, making this change can really help.
  • Avoid alcohol at night. — Yes, having a drink does slow the system down and can actually bring sleep on, but alcohol also has a tendency to disrupt sleep patterns, and usually doesn’t contribute to a full restful night’s sleep.
  • Don’t go for a run and then dive into bed– Exercise is fine in the evening, but ideally you should finish your exercise routine a couple of hours before you are ready to go to bed. This will result in your body being more tired.
  • Establish a bedtime routine that incorporates relaxation– Relaxing at bedtime is half the battle. Create a routine that incorporates relaxation. Take a warm bath at night. Spend 10 minutes reading for pleasure. Avoid activities that activate your brain or make you tense.
  • Don’t toss and turn in bed– If 15 minutes have passed when you are lying in bed, get out of bed, do something relaxing, and go to bed again once you feel tired. When you toss and turn in bed, your brain is associating your bed with not sleeping, which is the opposite association you’re trying to create.
  • Don’t watch the clock! If you do, you’ll just think, “Crap…it’s already 1:30am and I AM STILL NOT ASLEEP,” which doesn’t help you to feel relaxed. Cover or turn around your clock.
  • Don’t worry in bed — We all worry. It’s a normal part of life. But try not to worry in bed (remember, bed is for sleep). If you find yourself worrying in bed, try writing down the things that you are worried about and give yourself permission and time to worry about them the next day. In bed, simply tell yourself, “I will give myself some time to fully worry about that tomorrow.” If that doesn’t work, and you find yourself continuing to worry in bed, get up and worry somewhere else.

I challenge you to set a sleeping goal for the next week. This goal might address the number of hours of sleep you plan to get each night, it might involve incorporating two of the tips listed above, etc. It’s up to you. But give something a try and see if you notice a difference in how you feel.