• Roger Tirazona

It's OK to take a mental health break

"A shame to her country" - "She is a selfish sociopath" - "We raised a weak generation"

These are some of the tweets that Olympic gymanstics star Simone Biles received when announced that she was going to retire from all the Tokyo 2020 events this year. Her announcement divided the internet between a group of people defending her and raising awareness about mental health, and people who criticised her for being a snowflake and unpatriotic. Luckily the latter were in a minority, or so I think, as nowadays one's perceptions of social media reactions have to be carefully weighed within the knowledge of the existence of echo chambers.

Either way Simone Biles made a strong statement, which I dare say was within the spirit of sport and the Olympics, as much as winning any gold medal; the one which says self-care and self-love is the only true journey that a sportsperson ought to undertake in their athletic life and this is true not only of athletes but hopefully of every human being on this planet.

Ms Biles was not alone, as another star athlete from Britain, swimmer Adam Peaty MBE withdrew from Tokyo 2020 citing the need for a mental health break and a need to get away from all the piled up pressure. He too received a barrage of negative comments but his answer to all that was "money does not buy happiness."

And how right he was and not merely anecdotally. We have tonnes of economic, sociological and psychological research that show that the impact of money on quality of life is only up to a certain point. After a certain amount of yearly income, there is no evidence that money will make a difference to the joy perceived by your brain. Happiness is a state far beyond the pleasures that money can buy, and this was something known to Human beings the minute economy and trade became part of society. Aristotle's entire philosophical treatise on ethics is based on this premise.

If you do not care for yourself and nurture yourself, you will only put yourself and perhaps others in harm's way. The wrong mental state in those high stakes scenarios will only endanger yourself and the ones around you. One slip up in such an athletic endeavour as Simone Biles', and one can be injured for life, ruining an entire career. Let alone, if the safety of others depended on one's mental state as well; imagine a circus performer or professional dance partner.

It does not have to be Tokyo 2020. High stakes are everywhere, in almost every job worth having. The jobs and professions that do not have an impact on other people's lives are very hard to think of. One does not have to resort to the obvious examples like health workers, doctors, heavy machinery operators etc. to illustrate how one wrong decision or one clouded moment will ruin somebody's life. Imagine a lawyer losing clarity and sharpness on the day of your hearing and that's it... your future is devastated by one wrong move where you unknowingly put yourself in checkmate because your lawyer was having a bad day.

And what about teachers?

In the US, teaching is the 4th most stressful job, before medical doctors and right after police officers. So basically if one measured cortisol hormone levels in teachers, in the US they would be right up there with doctors undergoing the pressures of surgeries and police officers in the line of fire of the most heavily armed citizenry in the world. Yet you will still find those portions of society that harp about teachers' holidays and summer recesses without fully appreciating the role a teacher has in society.

The pressure that is put on a teacher's attendance at work is related to the responsibility they have towards their students. Our students are entitled to their lessons and their future is greatly affected by the contact that they have with their teachers. Look at how people talk about their years in school and how they will remember their teachers (for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad) which shows you how deep those formative years run within people's lives.

However, the way I see it, is that if I am having a bad day and do the wrong thing by saying something to a student that demotivates her, the harm done there is far worse than missing out on a lesson, which can be recovered later on or recovered with handover materials. It takes a degree of professionalism and self-awareness to understand that one does not have the correct mental state to handle their work environment well and I would argue that it is far better for a teacher to take their mental health break when they need it, rather than plough through the syllabus to meet deadlines with the possible risk of damaging the student. One cannot take care of others if one does not care for the self.

But here I have to go back to the pressure that is put on teachers' attendance and I have to refer to the importance of empathy, compassion and most importantly the respect for privacy. Sick leave is there for a reason and yes, people should be able to avail themselves of this leave for destressing and relief of pressure without being judged and without being made to feel guilty.

Some years ago, some colleagues and I were bullied at our workplace simply because that particular scholastic year we had accumulated quite a few days of sick leave. Some teachers were keeping a tally and sharing it publicly on a notice board for the sake of ridicule. It was a particularly difficult year where my allergies, sinuses and asthma gave me a bit more trouble than usual. The other teachers had reasons of their which I need not explain. In reality I should not need to explain anything to anyone, as health and sick leave are private matters, but for the sake of the argument I have to. It was completely disrespectful and a crass lack of collegiality, not to mention lack of basic empathy. Luckily the school administration took action on it and it did not happen again.

Why are people shamed for not turning up to work? For the same reasons people protested Simone Biles' mental health break: people have been conditioned that way. Many are selfishly more worried about how other people's absence affects them (and only them) rather than showing empathy and compassion. The only thing they can see is that somehow they are being burdened by someone's absence, the same way they told Simone Biles that she is letting down the team. There's always that unconscious thought that does something like "It's not fair that I'm here while she is at home watching Netflix." That's because society has conditioned us to see our labour as a burden, not matter what it is, and the burden increases the minute it is shared with less people. If replacing the lesson of a sick teacher is that much of a burden, then you're in the wrong place.

After this experience I have not yet had another rough year in terms of health but I might have it again in the future who knows? I did however decide to make myself and my health a priority, and that includes being aware of my mental state. My students and my colleagues deserve having me at the top of my game each and every day and teachers should without feeling any sort of guilt, take mental health days and make the right choice as the Olympic athletes did.

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