By Sharissa Lee

On University Mental Health Day, tutor Sharissa reflects on her own mental health challenges.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that the journey of maintaining good mental health can be difficult. The children and young people’s charity, Young Minds, found that 84% of young people reported worsening mental health after school closures.

This can be particularly daunting especially when you are responsible for the needs of those who rely on you to help them through their education – many children across the country have seen the closure of their schools, and thereby a door closed on a space that gives them community, development and creativity. However, I feel that these struggles, should we choose to see them this way, can be beneficial for us all – as tutors, tutees and people. The experience of struggle is arguably one of the most educational skills any human can master, by teaching us how to problem-solve, express and adapt.

I have wrestled with my mental wellbeing for as long as I can remember. When I started university, the challenges that come with being launched into the world of independence and self-accountability, as well as an intense workload, brought these issues to light more than ever.

I was officially diagnosed with Anxiety and Panic Disorder in the summer of 2016, and the road to recovery has not been easy. There have been days where the most I have done is get out of bed to eat a cereal bar, and at present, the smallest of things can still send me into an anxious spiral. Yet as I have grown older, these days become less frequent, and even when I have faced those same dilemmas my response to them is a lot less rash.

As someone who hates to quit, I made a resolution to myself that I would try and beat these conditions as best as I could, and if I could not beat them, at least learn to live with them. I now have regular counselling and exercise, journal daily and take medication to help manage my mood, but I also know that for many it is not as simple as this and I have the privilege of access to support that many do not. Yet I have found that, as a tutor, my determination to understand my feelings and seek solutions to navigate them have helped massively in supporting the children I teach, many of whom face the same difficulties, if not worse, than myself.

One of the main ways my mental health struggles help me as a tutor is in building a rapport with my students. Admittedly, I used to see this as a hindrance rather than an advantage – tutoring in itself can present a plethora of challenges, and I would often question how someone who on days could barely hold themself together could be of any use to anyone.

But now, having been a tutor for just over two years, I have noticed that my experiences have made me increasingly empathetic, compassionate and understanding, where I try to provide a safe learning environment to understand the children in my care first and foremost as human beings. When a child may not be responding normally, has difficulty maintaining focus, or flat-out refuses to engage, there is often a deeper root cause. Orienteering through the world of early and late adolescence is not easy, and though it might have been a while since most of us have gone through that stage, it is worth asking yourself if you were in their shoes what you would want from a teacher. Holding space for children to be open with you about what is going on in their lives, especially now, can help you adjust a session to the needs of your tutees at that moment. Whilst it is important that academic progress is made, none of it matters if students do not feel they can connect with their tutor. If a child opens up to you about something you believe is of a particular wellbeing concern, I would report to the school designated safeguarding lead and the Tutor Trust designated safeguarding lead immediately, even if the child asks for confidentiality.

As the saying goes, your struggles can be your greatest strengths.

The ability to empathise will produce a snowball effect which will make you a better listener, tutor and overall person. There will be bumps – we are human and far from perfect, but it is better to have tried than to not try at all.

To see a flourishing in learning at present, though difficult, is possible, and in order for this to happen, we must allow for students to show up and be fully themselves. It is okay for them to not be okay, just as it is for ourselves, and meeting each other where we are at is the first step in finding a solution both academically and pastorally.

Incorporating our lives into lessons can help us all process the events around us, such as asking children to write about their lockdown experiences, helping students see the parallels in literary texts to our society, or even ask how to work out the percentage increase of toilet roll prices.

Championing students to believe in themselves despite the difficulties of this strange time, as well as anything else, will set us all up for learning how to overcome anything the world throws at us. Sometimes it will look like pushing on, taking a break, or even scrapping the original plan and creating a new one, but learning when to do each one is a skill that will not only help us in the classroom but in the playground that is life.

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