Dear Peer Health Exchange health educator,
Are you OK?
It’s a simple question, but it can have a complex answer. As health educators and advocates, we know all too well the multitude of factors that can impact how we’re doing on a day-by-day or even an hour-by-hour basis. Are we processing some life issues? Are we stressed out about school, work, volunteer duties or bills? Did we sleep well? Did we skip lunch? Do we even enjoy what we’re doing? These are factors in every person’s life, but for those who work or volunteer in helping professions, there can be additional, more specific issues we deal with that come hand in hand with the work we do.
Are we still carrying the emotional burdens of the people we helped hours ago? Did the topic we covered or a story someone shared with us bring up old wounds that are stubbornly refusing to heal? Can we be effective helpers when we ourselves are struggling with something?
Sometimes, we aren’t OK. Not really. We facilitate conversations about mental health. Aren’t we supposed to know what to do?
Not necessarily. Even if we know cognitively what we need to do, there’s a whole other messy aspect of humans called emotions, and they’re very inconvenient at times. People are complex, and knowing what we need to do doesn’t necessarily make it easier to get it done. Sometimes, it can even feel like knowing what to do makes us harder on ourselves. It’s easier to beat yourself up when you can’t plead ignorance. Remember, we’re not just equipping ninth graders with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make healthy decisions—we are all on a life-long journey to gain this understanding.
So, when you feel like you’re not OK, there are a few things you can try to think about or do to help yourself.
- Recognize that it’s OK to not be OK. Seriously, it is. You’re a human being. Life is difficult. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t need to do what we do.
- Recognize the signs of burnout. Compassion fatigue, restlessness, poor sleep, poor self-care, ignoring something that was once really important to you, procrastinating, excessive worry, social withdrawal… A lot of the signs of burn-out also look like the signs of depression or anxiety, and for good reason. However, unlike anxiety or depression, burnout tends to primarily stem from feelings about the work that you do.
- Figure out what self-care really looks like for you. Despite the Facebook memes from your aunt Karen, drinking a bottle of wine and eating an entire cake is not likely to really be “self-care.” Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you. Self-care is about actively taking care of yourself.
- Engage in active coping. Being “OK” isn’t something that will just “come to you,” it’s a choice you have to actively work towards. This can look like taking a shower, eating something at least vaguely healthy, taking a walk, or taking a fifteen-minute break. Vegging out with Netflix until 2 am or way overspending on pizza delivery so you don’t have to put on pants aren’t really self-care when they’re getting in the way of living the life you want. If your vision of an OK-you is someone who cooks dinner and goes to bed on time, you’re going to want to critically examine the ways you’re coping and see if they’re bringing you towards the person you want to be, or away from them.
- Connect with others. Reach out to your Leadership Council (LC) members, they are there to support you and will understand the challenges that come with juggling school, work, and being a health educator. Join wellness groups on campus, speak with other students, or check on your college’s website. Your peers may know of resources like Wildchat, a phone peer listening service for Northwestern University students. Even for the most hardcore introverts, isolation can exacerbate feelings of not being “OK.” Connecting with others has a natural way of helping us feel less alone. If you’re feeling burned out, chances are your peers are too, or at least have been at some point. But if you’re not ready to open up about how you’re feeling, that’s okay, too. Connecting doesn’t have to mean spilling your guts. Connecting can mean going for a walk with someone, or playing a board game, or even making an effort to chat with the check-out worker at the grocery store. (It’s important to note that only face-to-face interaction seems to have such a positive effect on mood. Online games, texting, and sitting next to someone while you both silently binge watch TV is not going to give you the same benefit.)
- Get professional help if you need it. I know, I know. You probably don’t want to. Very few people wake up, put on a smile, and chirp, “I want to go to therapy today!” That’s kind of the point of therapy, isn’t it? It’s OK to need help, just like it’s OK to not be OK. This is what we teach young people in classrooms across the country every day and the same applies to our lives. A helper getting help when they need it doesn’t make them a bad helper; in fact, it makes them a better one. If you’re not sure where to start with seeking out professional help, check if your campus has a counseling center or offers counseling services. There may also be peer-led groups like The Blues Project, a peer education volunteer program that promotes awareness and education about depression and suicide prevention at California State University, Northridge. The students at The Blues Project receive extensive training in recognizing and articulating causes, symptoms, treatment, and referral sources.
- Work on a self-care plan, so you know where to start the next time you’re not OK. The last step of any major healing process is preventing relapse. While it’s common to not be “OK” from time to time, we don’t have to start over from scratch the next time this will inevitably happen, and “relapse” into any unhealthy coping skills we might have used before. We can make a plan. We can list off all the things we learned that help, and all the things that make things worse so we can avoid them. We can figure out if there are any routines we can add to help us realize when we’re not OK a little sooner next time.
Ultimately, “being OK” is a verb. It’s an action, based on choices. It’s not a passive state, something that happens to us. Your turn. Comment below with a favorite campus or community resource that supports your mental health.
Emily Decker is a mental health therapist who specializes in trauma and disability. She is passionate about integrating self-care into daily practice for all helping professionals. She is from Oregon, and currently practices in Washington, DC.