Those Who Do, Also Teach

Teaching can be a very challenging yet rewarding profession. On Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019, I began my 21st year of teaching in the elementary school system and I had a great week. Every morning that I put my feet on the floor, I try my absolute best to share as much of my passion to help my students while supporting them in growing, developing and learning.

Teachers are immersed in very unique and extraordinary roles to shape the youth of today. I feel as though I’ve been granted an amazing opportunity not only to speak my truth in sharing and advocating for my mental health and healing, but to also advocate for others who, for one reason or another, have not found their voice

I have been managing my state of mental health, officially, since a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder and anxiety almost three years ago. If you had asked me 5 years ago if I thought I would have gone through what I have, I would have unequivocally said “Not even close.” I had always envisioned myself as mentally strong.

In early 2017, I took my first leave of absence for my mental illness and I decided then that I was going to keep things to myself, only my wife would know. I thought people would view me differently. Many people, regardless of their job or career, still feel the stigma that I felt back then. Some may fear that by speaking their truth their employment would be jeopardized, that they would damage their personal and professional relationships with others, that they would be judged differently. I did not feel like the feelings that I was experiencing were anyone’s business but my own, so I decided to isolate myself and to keep things quiet. That silence was deafening and my symptoms actually became worse. Rumours started to surface as to why I was away, and let me tell you that some of those rumours were not so glamourous. To me, I felt like my professional and personal lives were being taken from me, and I was losing control even more.

I returned to work full-time from my leave, likely sooner than I should have, to assure everyone that the rumours were false and that I was “okay.” I think that I wore the mask very well.

Months had passed and I took a second mental health leave from school. Upon returning several weeks later, the time came that would be a huge turning point in me taking ownership of what I was going through. I was exhausted both mentally and physically, and I was tired of wearing the mask. I opened up to my colleagues and shared my struggles with them at one of our monthly staff meetings. It was nerve racking and completely liberating at the same time. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I cried. My voice was shaking and my body was tingling. Initially, the reaction from my colleagues was a mixture – some positivity, some silence, and some absorption of what I had just revealed. As time passed, however, the support I have received has grown even more, and has continued to be positive. I learned a valuable lesson – just because someone does not react or say something to you, it does not necessarily mean that they do not care about you. For the first time in a long time, control was slowly beginning to shift back in my direction. As one can tell, control is important to me. I feel better when I have control over my body and my feelings.

As the year passed, I also will never forget the day that I shared publicly via social media what I was going through, and what I had been experiencing. It was my 46th birthday. I had reached the point in my life where I no longer cared what people thought or said about me. I was relinquishing the desire to control and the energy that I put into what people thought of me. I started to realize there was nothing that I could do to control others and their attitudes. That was my biggest “ah ha” moment and it changed my life. In the days after posting my truth on my social media, I received hundreds of messages of thanks, encouragement, positivity, friendship, sharing, hope and inspiration. Some of them even said, “Me too.” Not a single message was negative. NOT ONE. Many people began to share their stories with me, both publicly and privately, and I knew that I was not alone. It was okay to not be okay. As many more continued to share their stories and experiences with me, I learned something different from each and every one of them. For that, I am forever grateful.

I heard a great quote last year that said, “If we do not give our ache a voice, it will be the undercurrent to our addictions.”

I have gone through some very difficult times but sharing has helped me heal and my vulnerability has been my strength. By finding my voice, it has helped me to heal, and it is my hope that it inspires others to do the same.

This past summer, I was part of a team that cycled almost 7600 kilometres across Canada over a 7-week span. Our goal was to raise awareness and funds to support youths having difficulty managing their mental health in our area. Thanks to many generous people, we were able to collect almost $59,000 in donations. The experience was completely surreal, rewarding and humbling. The biggest take away from that trip for me was that, as Canadians, mental health and mental illness connect us all and that kindness always wins. It doesn’t matter how old we are, we all have the same core needs – to be loved, to be safe and to be cared for. We met some absolutely amazing people along the way. Many were willing to share their truths and they continued to be thirsty for knowledge, education, awareness and much needed mental health resources.

Dedicated to my friend Kenneth McAlpine – your inspiration continues to live on. Rest In Peace. – James Carson

The journey also led to important connections through conversations. It is vital to have those tough, raw, emotional and necessary talks in order to evolve and to keep moving forward. If you are finding difficulties managing your mental health, please speak to someone. You are valued, you have a purpose, and you are loved. This experience has taught me a lot about myself, my abilities, my strength, my will power and my character, and I want you to know that it has changed me for the better. It has also made me a more well-rounded teacher. I understand students better, manage behaviours more effectively, and my empathy has gained another layer of strength. I firmly believe that I was meant to go through this, not only to grow intrinsically, but to advocate for the progression of reducing stigma, to raise more mental health awareness, the need for resources, to make truer connections, and to help others see the light among the darkness.

If there is one hope that I continue to have, it would be for people to be there for one another, to have empathy, love and compassion, and to understand that everyone is going through something. You are not alone, and you should not feel shame, fear, or guilt by wanting to seek help and to find your voice.

Find your voice. Stand behind it. Change the world.