||Volume 27, Number 2, Nov./Dec. 2014
BCTF partners with Starling Minds
by Susan Croll
Statistics Canada reports that 20% of Canadians struggle with some sort of mental health problem. This percentage means that as many as 8,000 BC teachers could be dealing with their own mental health issues. – Dr. Andrew Miki, 2014
Like the data from Statistics Canada suggests, more and more teachers are experiencing high stress levels. Over the last 10 years, steady increases in Salary Indemnity Plan claims related to mental health have become the norm.
With this in mind, the BCTF teamed with Dr. Andrew Miki, a registered psychologist based in Vancouver, to offer teachers free access to an online “mental fitness” program called Starling. Dr. Miki’s program, founded on the tenets of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), is designed to help any BCTF member who wants to learn more about stress, how it affects both the mind and body, and who is open to learning effective strategies that help keep sadness, anxiety, and worry in check.
He based Starling on his experience working with over 75 teachers in his private practice. He says that a majority of teachers under his care needed support because of intense levels of stress in both their professional and personal lives.
“Due to the nature of teaching being a helping profession, the complexities of the job are not confined to the classroom and students. Additional stress from interactions with parents, colleagues, administrators, and from teachers’ personal lives, can be the tipping point in a person’s ability to manage one’s life well and perform at the level one expects of her or himself,” Dr. Miki said.
Dr. Miki’s vision is to enable teachers to become the key to changing how our society perceives mental health. “The way we combat any kind of stigma is with education. It is my hope that BC teachers will embrace a new way of looking at mental health that is far more logical and understandable.”
It all comes down to the size of the BCTF membership and the number of people they can influence. “There are over 41,000 teachers and only 1,200 psychologists in BC. Teachers can provide a vital role in mental health education and preventative psychology. By learning more about it, teachers will not only better manage their own stress but they will position themselves to educate their students, family members, and friends. Think about the power it can have on our society if every teacher helps educate one student every year about mental health.”
As part of that education, Dr. Miki views mental health as a continuum and says that it is a mistake to see mental health as an either/or situation. “Throughout history, mental health has been stigmatized to the point that people view it as a black and white issue where people are either ‘crazy’ or ‘normal.’ Instead, mental health is a component of our overall health and the continuum ranges from very healthy to severely impaired. Similar to physical fitness, mental fitness is a skill we can all learn to improve, regardless of where we are on the continuum.”
Dr. Miki explains that our thoughts, behaviours, and physiology influence our feelings, and the level of stress we experience affects all of these factors. There are often patterns to how these factors interact. For example, when we are highly stressed our thinking can become distorted or faulty. Report cards are a typical stressor for many teachers because they require longer hours and additional work over a compressed period of time.
Dr. Miki thinks that a certain amount of stress and worry are helpful when they help put important things on our radar screens and spur us into action or problem solving, but says they become problematic when we chronically avoid tasks or situations, ruminate in either/or thinking, or self-blame.
“If you already feel overwhelmed, imagine adding report cards to your plate. The most common response is to avoid them by procrastinating. This can be partly due to your increased workload and being worn down toward the end of the semester. It can also be the result of worrying over the quality of your report cards or how your students or their parents will perceive them. If you think that procrastination implies you are lazy or weak, it will negatively affect your mood. By learning some basic principles of mental health, you will see that procrastination is an attempt to relieve your anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. So, procrastination is a form of instant gratification but it inevitably leads to increased stress later on because the reports are still not done and you’re closer to the deadline.”
He also refers to the Big 5, a scale of five personality traits, and describes how teachers score on these traits. For example, teachers fall in the normal range for neuroticism but are closer to the higher range for openness, agreeableness, and extroversion. Not surprising, teachers score at the highest range for conscientiousness. These traits are a good fit for the work teachers do, but our high level of conscientiousness can be a double-edged sword. Because teachers always want to do the best they can for their students, stress levels can soar as teachers work in a system that expects people, year after year, to do more with less.
“The combination of high standards and a strong work ethic usually leads to academic and professional success. However, when people do not understand some of the basic principles of mental health, that level of conscientiousness can become debilitating because there are no boundaries on how much work is enough. As helping professionals, teachers are usually willing to take on more and more to help their students but what if this pattern continues indefinitely? How long can a person last?”
Before developing the online program, Dr. Miki worked with the BCTF’s Health and Wellness Program to organize a pilot project to provide both mental healthcare to a larger number of teachers and allow teachers to support each other. It worked. The results from four groups showed a statistically significant reduction in anxiety and depression. More importantly, the teachers reported that they learned how to better manage the stress in their lives. When participants were asked if they would recommend the program to their colleagues, every teacher responded with a single word—definitely.
Teachers outside the Lower Mainland learned about the program and requested something similar in their communities. Dr. Miki thought about it and proposed what has become the online starlingminds.com program. All BCTF members—unless broadband is unavailable where they live—can access the program for free.
What does the program look like?
Starling consists of 10 online modules with each module featuring video vignettes explaining the basic concepts of mental health, a case study of a teacher named Virginia, how CBT works, and what kinds of strategies people can use to manage stress and its symptoms, before it leads to depression or anxiety.
Dr. Miki uses cognitive behaviour strategies because he finds they work for teachers. “Teachers respond positively to CBT. I believe it’s because CBT is based on education and training. Teachers are lifelong learners. They are open to new ideas and willing to take the time and put in the effort to learn new skills and strategies. Teachers are conscientious and part of Starling includes homework and teachers actually complete this assigned work. They know from teaching that in order to really learn something it must be practiced repeatedly to become mastered.”
Modules are interactive and participants complete activities according to their own schedules. Each module takes about 20 minutes, excluding the homework. Dr. Miki suggests that teachers complete the homework exercises within a week which means the whole program is about 10 weeks. As well, participants monitor and assess their moods, learning to become more aware of what they are feeling and just as importantly, what they are thinking.
Dr. Miki cautions that while the program is open to all teachers, it particularly benefits people who are experiencing mild or moderate stress levels. He also says that it is useful simply as a resource to learn more about mental health in general. Many teachers who have become familiar with Starling say that it helps them to identify and understand their students’ moods and behaviours.
He encourages people who have severe levels of stress to seek additional help. “Unchecked severe stress is not healthy for your mind or your body. Starling tries to educate people on how increased stress and faulty patterns of learning can lead to depression and anxiety. It helps give people a framework on how these conditions develop over time and why it’s not a person’s fault or that they can simply snap out of it. Without this education, you won’t really understand how stress works and often can’t get back to a healthy place on your own.”
“We are very excited because about 150 teachers have signed onto the program and we are finding the same results as our pilot project—statistically significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Take the step and educate yourself. Most likely you will feel better for doing so.”
How can you access the program?
Members can access Starling by signing up at starlingminds.com. All you need is your six digit BCTF member identification number that you use to sign into the BCTF portal. If you are unsure of your BCTF ID, you can email email@example.com or call to speak to a BCTF staffperson (604-871-2119 or 1-800-663-9163, local 2119).
All personal information shared with Starling is kept completely confidential and will not be shared with anyone including the BCTF or any school district. You will find the privacy statement on the Starling website once you login.
Dr Andrew Miki is available to come to locals to speak to teachers about his program. He presented workshops about Starling at the BCTF Summer Conference in August. More recently, he spoke to Nanaimo teachers at one of their pro-d events. Please contact the BCTF Health and Wellness program at 604-871-1925 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You can also contact Dr. Miki directly by email: email@example.com
Susan Croll is Editor, Teacher Newsmagazine