The Power of Peer Support | Educators in the Field Amid COVID-19
Updated: Sep 17
At UCF RESTORES®, we not only strongly believe in the power of peer support, we’ve witnessed it firsthand. Through REACT, our peer support training program, we’ve worked with thousands of first responders to help our front-line heroes learn how to recognize signs of emotional distress in others, offer peer-level support and effectively coordinate follow up when clinical assistance is warranted.
Though it’s never a sign of weakness to talk about what you’ve seen, unfortunately, we are still battling a universal stigma that can deter someone struggling from reaching out for support, even to their closest friends, colleagues and loved ones. But, especially amid COVID-19 – an unprecedented traumatic event that has heightened stress and challenges for people of all walks of life – talking about trauma, its effects and how we can cope is more important than ever.
In this series, “The Power of Peer Support,” UCF RESTORES’ Suicide Prevention Expert David Rozek, Ph.D., breaks down the concept, why it’s so important, its role in suicide awareness and prevention, and effective tools we can use to support one another – not only as we continue to weather the storm of this pandemic together, but long after we’ve surpassed it. The second installment in this series is specifically developed for our educators who are adjusting to teaching in a remote environment or re-entering their physical classrooms as a global pandemic wages on, and the stressors specific to their experience.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health and would like to request an appointment or consultation with UCF RESTORES, please contact us here or by phone at (407) 823-3910.
When it comes to my feelings and that of others, what is “normal” right now? At what point would I want to re-evaluate what I’m feeling and consider connecting with a peer or mental health professional to discuss my experience?
There really isn’t a defined “normal” right now and that’s important to keep in mind. We are in the middle of a pandemic that affects each individual differently, so it’s challenging to define what that might look like in a sweeping sense. As effects of COVID-19 persist, so many elements of our day-to-day lives are changing – especially when compared to pre-pandemic routines – so it’s more important than ever to frequently check in on your mental health throughout this time.
If you notice changes in your feelings or mood because of this sudden change in routine (or other factors related to the pandemic, which has really changed the traditional role of an educator) and it’s impacting your ability to live a life that brings you joy and fulfillment, it might be a good time to check in with a peer or mental health professional.
Sometimes people are not aware of the great resources available. For example, UCF RESTORES’ Single Session Consultation Program opens up access to support for essential workers (including our amazing, resilient educators), and we invite you to reach out and connect with one of our mental health clinicians if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Through this program, our center provides no-cost, 60-minute, one-on-one telehealth sessions (that are, of course, completely confidential) to discuss the stressors and challenges an individual is facing, and to develop a concrete, personalized plan to help move them forward.
In this new, remote environment, it is more difficult to see how my fellow educators are truly feeling. How can I identify signs of heightened stress in a remote environment?
A great way to do this is to reach out directly to a colleague you may be concerned for and initiate the conversation. This not only allows you to check in on them (as we’d want to do for any other friend!), but it also allows you to show your support and remind them that you’re “in their corner.” That social connection is such a powerful intervention itself, especially if someone is truly struggling. Sometimes people who are struggling find it difficult to reach out, but they are more likely to open up to peers with similar experiences, background and history. So, taking that initial step to connect can be really helpful in understanding where they stand mentally.
On a similar note, looking at our students, we no longer benefit from seeing them in person and observing their behavior “in real life.” In the world of web-based education, how can we, as educators, spot heightened stress or changes in mood/behavior among students in our virtual classrooms? And, in communicating and collaborating with parents, who are now facing unprecedented stressors themselves, what are some best practices an educator could use to share that a child might be struggling?
Especially in a virtual environment, it is very important to address any behavioral changes, big or small. These changes may include having difficulties with assignments, disruptive behavior during class or missing classes. While some of these behaviors may, ultimately, be due to pandemic-related changes at home, it is still important to monitor each student individually, note any emerging patterns, and personally connect with the student and/or their parents.
When it comes to addressing concerning behavior changes, there are different routes you can take. Of course, you can connect and inform the parents directly; in some cases, they may already be aware of the challenge at hand and can provide additional context for educators. This may provide key information to help educators connect the student and parents with resources to help target the specific problems (e.g., school psychologists and counselors, social work, etc.). Educators can also get to the root of the issue by reaching out to students directly with personalized comments on assignments or setting the stage for smaller group activities in a virtual learning environment – break-out rooms, for example – to observe a student’s behavior. You could also schedule individual meetings with students or “drop-in” hours where students know you will be free for them to come and chat (as time permits). It does take some creative planning to incorporate these into your classroom routine, which can definitely be challenging, but these efforts can have such an impact on your students, especially during difficult times like this. (My mom, now a retired elementary school teacher, started incorporating these into her distance learning classes just last year!)
Overall, the most important components of helping students that may be struggling are checking in, having back-and-forth conversations, and connecting them with resources that can fully address their needs.
In more normal times, we benefited from being able to see and interact with other on-campus educators in person; of course, that is often no longer the case. If I see signs of depression, heightened anxiety or potential suicidal ideation in a fellow educator, but they say they’re “too busy” to talk, how could I go about connecting with them in a meaningful and impactful way?
There are several options here, depending on the details of the situation. You can ask them to set up a time that accommodates their schedule and circle back if they are too busy at that specific moment. But I cannot emphasize this enough: follow-up is key, especially if they cannot find a time in that very moment to schedule a chat. Often, people who are struggling find it hard to open up and reach out – managing different symptoms of mental health takes a lot of energy – so being the one to assure that conversation gets “on the books” is vital.
Of course, you can also reach out to them in other ways, such as texting or emailing, to let them know you are thinking of them. Many people stop checking in with others because they do not get a response. Do not get discouraged by this! If you get no response, that’s okay. It’s likely that your friend or colleague really values your connection, but they may not have the time or energy to respond right away. Being creative in how to communicate is one of the challenges of this pandemic but, fortunately, we have a lot of avenues at our disposal.
In nearly every business environment, venting to each other is part of the routine. At what point can this venting turn from helpful – allowing us to decompress and discuss our shared experiences – to harmful, where I’m left feeling more frustrated, stressed or helpless after the conversation than I did before it even began?
A critical point to assess when evaluating whether venting is becoming harmful is if or when you start feeling the negative impacts. When these conversations start impacting your own well-being, it may be time to check in with a mental health provider or even a different peer.
Self-care is something that is often talked about but not always implemented by people in fields dedicated to helping others. So many individuals, like our selfless educators, spend so much time assisting others that, when it comes to themselves, they ignore self-care and can carry a related, built-up burden of guilt. Taking time to find self-care activities that are simple, achievable, and fit into your current schedule or situation is so important.
Also, when it comes to self-care, we want to be intentional. Take the time to plan your self-care activities in advance and pencil them into your schedule. Self-care can take the form of something as small as taking a walk on your lunch break, having a glass of wine while you watch your favorite show, or reading a book before bed. But, even these “small” activities can fall by the wayside if we don’t schedule them in, especially during these times when a routine can be challenging to maintain. Take some time to think about small pleasures that make you happy; this investment will help define what self-care looks like for you, and taking care of yourself is a vital step toward being able to effectively care for others.