My Mental Health Journey

7356883190_7de9a82642_z

This week, my daughter asked if she could use me for an assignment on mental health.  She is in the middle of a Master’s degree in Science, so I thought this might be a good time to write about something I have never disclosed publically.  I do this not to draw more attention to myself – I have no interest in that.  I have decided to put this out with the hope that it might help someone and that I can contribute to the conversation on mental health that is currently going on here in Canada.  The assignment questions and answers are all part of this post.

Hope it helps.

Can you talk briefly about your diagnosis?

Yes, the diagnosis was reached 8 years ago and it was characterized as ‘pure obsessive-compulsive disorder’ – a clinical anxiety disorder.  Pure, in the sense that this form of OCD did not come with any form of compulsive actions like washing hands, checking to make sure doors are locked, excessive cleanliness etc.  Pure OCD is characterized more by obsessive or intrusive thoughts.

Growing up, what did you know about mental illness? How was mental illness seen by the society at large? How was it seen by those close to you?

Growing up I knew nothing about the condition.  I am pretty sure my mother suffered from some form of the disorder, but she never received treatment.  In fact, until 8 years ago, I knew little about the condition.  I went through 20 years where the condition was undiagnosed.  It tended to flare up during the summer and at Christmas when I wasn’t as busy at work.  It first presented itself around the time I started working full-time at 27.  It was a preexisting condition which I think was aggravated by stress and I worked in a very stressful environment as a high school teacher.

How is mental illness seen by the public?

That is a huge question.  I think there is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding mental illness and that the whole topic is somewhat of a taboo where those that suffer are somehow seen as weak.  This has led me to keep my condition largely a secret, which really is not helpful for others that suffer from some form of mental illness.  I believe there is very little understanding of mental illness amongst the general public and educators are no better informed than the general public.

I am reminded of a time where I actually disclosed my condition to a supervisor explaining that undue stress could trigger a relapse of the condition.  The supervisor discounted the information entirely.  I still feel like I have a responsibility to address this situation with this individual at some point.  A lack of empathy when it comes to mental health issues is simply not acceptable, especially when a person is responsible for others in the workplace.

Other supervisors told me when I was in the midst of a particular mental health crisis that they didn’t want to know anything about it.  Unfortunately even loved ones encouraged me to ‘get over it’ or concluded that this condition would just ‘remain’ and I should get used to living a diminished existence.  I am happy to say, that at least with my family, there has been a great change in attitude as they have learned along with me.

Generally speaking, people don’t understand anxiety and other forms of mental illness and I do believe that people are threatened by these discussions.  I have a great amount of respect for Canadians like Clara Hughes who has been so open about talking about her mental health issues.

In class, we sometimes talk about mental illness as a form of disability. People are disabled by their environment because our world was structured for those without limitations. Have you ever seen yourself as having a disability?

Yes, I do have a disability.  Mental Health becomes an issue for people when it gets in the way of normal functioning.  This was the case for me for over 20 years.  For people with OCD, it has been typical that the condition goes undiagnosed for as long as 20 years.  Diagnosis and treatment make a huge difference and it is a tragedy that people have gone so long suffering, in fact, in silence.  My hope that writing about the condition will help more people to seek help earlier and that everyone begins to see that mental health is something that needs to be talked about and understood, especially by people who manage others in the workplace.

Can you talk about your experiences with health professionals? Could the health professionals you encountered done anything differently?

Things changed for me because of some wonderful practitioners at the Ottawa Hospital and a close friend who is a psychiatrist at the same hospital.  I received excellent treatment there, but I would never have received this help if it wasn’t for the intervention of my friend.  This is one of the terrible facts about mental health in Canada.  It is very difficult to access really good care.  I find that many people are unable to access the care that they desperately need.  Psychological assistance is very expensive and generally available only to those who have health coverage.  For people without connections, the waiting list to see a psychiatrist can be very long.  I am so fortunate to have had the resources to access the excellent care I have received.

It is also true that many practitioners do not understand anxiety very well.  My family doctor was not helpful and prescribed an anxiety medication that led to serious addiction issues.  One therapist I saw for a long period of time actually made things worse for me and gave me no warning about the very negative effects of the medications I was taking.  The road to recovery was littered with many false starts and lack of understanding even from members of the medical community.

Has your experience with mental illness impacted the things that you do every day? (More specifically, in the workplace, in recreation, with family members)?

Yes, it has changed entirely how I look at life.  It led me to learn much more about meditation and Buddhist philosophy – both which have altered the way I  look at myself and others.  I realize now that you can live with a mental health condition and that serious conditions can be treated very successfully.  You do need an effective team working with you and the team does need to understand who they are dealing with.

Dealing with mental illness means that you have to look at your whole life and how you approach things.  You need to learn to accept the help of others and in some cases, learn that taking medication plays an important role in keeping you healthy.  I see all this as a good thing.  I truly believe that we learn best when we are under pressure or even in crisis.  We tend to ‘lean in’ and learn when we are in crisis.  The alternative is seeking oblivion through drugs, alcohol and a whole variety of methods.  This is a real danger in our society and one of the reasons why we need to understand addiction better and help those more effectively who are suffering.  Again, as a society, we could do a much better job at this.

Do you believe that your experiences with mental illness has offered you a unique perspective?

Yes, totally.  I don’t really regret the 20 years that I suffered from undiagnosed anxiety.  I appreciate the help I have received and I have learned so much about myself.  In some ways, I feel that I have been reborn by this experience especially now that I truly understand my condition and have learned to live with it successfully.  I also believe that we are always learning about ourselves.  To stop learning is to stop living and I deeply appreciate what I have gleaned over the past 8 years.

For you, what was the most effective form of treatment?  

For me, it was a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy – talking therapy and in my case, medication.  Sometimes medication is essential so the mind can get a chance to calm down enough to be able to accept the cognitive element of treatment.  That is why it is important to have a team working for you – a psychologist to do the cognitive therapy working in tandem with a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication and monitor its effects.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about all of this.  This is something I probably could not have done even a few years ago, but I realize now that it is important to speak out to help those who are suffering on their own.  I think it is also a measure of my own recovery that I am able to write about my mental health journey.  I would also like to thank my family,  friends and my wonderful medical team who has done so much for me over the past few years.

The Magic of Good Teaching

2789941899

 

I read a wonderful post by Dean Shareski this morning.  He asked a great question that got me writing.

If next week you could provide some type direct instruction to your students, what would you teach?

When I taught Canadian history – years before everything became so standardized – I had the luxury to focus on a few themes that I thought were really important. I guess this would now be considered the ‘big ideas’. We focused on the impact of war on a society (WWI) and the evolution of government brought on by the Great Depression. We never got to the end of the curriculum and it didn’t seem to matter. Thankfully, I didn’t teach in an area where people expected me to reach a defined point or concept.

These were my formative years as a teacher, but it has always struck me as important that the teacher discerns what their students need to learn and that developing students to be sensitive, caring people who are able to contribute in a positive way to their community comes first. I have always struggled with standards-based teaching and our current obsession with math scores. I think this is unhealthy and does no credit to the craft of teaching. I congratulate the educator whose English department has the highest scores in the district, but how did we get to a place where we measure success in teaching by the score on some arbitrary test? What have we done to the magic of good teaching?

I have always struggled with standards-based teaching and our current obsession with math scores here in our province. I think this is unhealthy and does no credit to the craft of teaching. I congratulate the educators whose schools or departments have the highest scores in their districts, but how did we get to a place where we measure success in teaching by the score on some arbitrary test?

What have we done to the magic of good teaching?

Leaders as Servants First

images

Everyone in education has heard the line that the principal is key to the success of a school.

I have never been comfortable with this, more so after 12 years as an administrator in a variety of schools.  The administrator plays a key role, but the overall success of the school depends more on the leadership style of the principal.

It is difficult to teach a leadership style and to be honest, I am not sure how you would do this.

As administrators, we are well trained in a number of areas.  We take a whole host of courses that prepare us to deal with the administrative side of the job.  We are well equipped to deal with ministry regulations, curriculum expectations, school finance and management practices.

We are not well trained on how to deal effectively and compassionately with staff and the wider community.

I say this because over the years I have heard so many stories of administrators fumbling relationships with staff, parents and the wider community.  I have worked in several schools where I replaced administrators who had run roughshod over the emotional landscape of their school.  To be fair, I have also replaced excellent administrators and in these cases, I have done my best to continue to support their excellent practices.

The problem seems to be that you can’t teach ‘heart’.  You can’t teach a principal to lead from the back, to empower their staff and to make themselves the servant leader in the school.

Years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about how to test for true servant leadership:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the last privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

This is not new.  Greenleaf wrote about Servant Leadership over 40 years ago. However, this essential ingredient in teaching people to become effective leaders is entirely lacking.

The result is troubling.  Administrators regularly act as if the teacher, educational assistant, custodian or parent do not truly matter.  Administrators routinely believe that their way of leading is the only way and what they know is what is best for their school.  The idea that they should stand back and play a supporting role is lost on many people.

This is not to say that there are no great leaders out there.  I have met many of them, some in our own district and many more at conferences I have attended and learning groups I have joined.

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It will be seen by many that writing about this smacks of disloyalty to other administrators.

This may be true, but I sincerely believe that we are not put in these positions to support other administrators, we are here to support our staff, students, and community.  We are here to create the conditions for the best learning environment possible.  We are here not to put our stamp on our school community, but to get out of the way and allow others to thrive.

download-1

I love reading the work of George Couros.  He is a true leader when it comes to innovation in schools and the use of technology in education.  Most importantly however, he is a true believer in the importance of building healthy relationships.

When I talk about “innovation in education”, creativity in schools, or meaningful use of technology, I always begin by saying that nothing I say matters if you do not build relationships in schools. There is no “culture of innovation” if there is no positive culture. It is the foundation of which we build things upon.

George Couros

Maybe this is one reason why schools are failing to become centers of innovation.  If everything depends on the ‘vision’ of one individual, how can we expect innovation to take place?

How do we expect our staff to really express their creative voice?

This is what I see.  I am happy to hear from others with an opposing view. Whatever the case, we should consider the role of the leader and the enabler, the true servant of their community.

This is where true growth and innovation will flourish.

Trust and other things…Blog Post #2

dane-sadownyk-danesadownyk-twitter-clipular

This is the first day of 2017 and I am ready to get on a roll for my 31 posts.  I wrote earlier that I planned to do 31 posts in 31 days.

This wasn’t my idea – my wife suggested it.  It’s a great idea.

We woke up today after a wonderful New Year’s Eve of tramping through the snow to gather with hundreds of other Ottawa folk to watch fireworks on Parliament Hill and simply wander around in the snowy wonder of a beautiful winter’s night. We met people, waited for free buses and loved the freedom of a wonderful night shared with so many people.

20161231_200531

Already, there are so many things to write about!  This morning, I read about a great project my friend Dean Shareski has started – the #Deanie Awards.

dean-shareski-shareski-twitter-clipular

What a wonderful way to start the year – recognizing people who are doing interesting things.  The first #Deanie recipient  posted the photo on trust at the top of today’s blog post.

I don’t know this person, but I watched him do a great singing presentation at an Ignite Talk.  Of course, I followed him and found this great retweet on trust. “Principals, your teachers must first trust in you before trusting in the change itself.”  The original tweet is from Nathan Lang, Ed. D. @nalang1, so I followed him too.

I am getting a little far from my original post idea on trust – I am sure I will get back to it – I really do see trust as the essential ingredient for anyone who aspires to be an effective principal.  Trust empowers, trust brings out the best in people, trust creates community.  yup, got to write more on this later.

For now, I want to celebrate a wonderful New Year’s Eve with my wonderful partner Heather, the #Deanie Awards and the wonderful gift of being open to making new connections on the first day of a hopeful new year!

More hope to come!