Navigating the Troubled Waters of Student Stress & Trauma

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By Erin McCamley, Sherry McCamley, and Cathy Springfield

Mental health issues are much more prevalent than most of us realize, and often strike people during adolescence and young adulthood. In fact, 20% of people between ages 13 and 18 experience a mental health issue each year. We have a personal investment in these statistics, because each of us has experienced mental health issues, and we have used theatre to share our story.  Along the way, we learned strategies for helping to support those in need and ways to stop the stigma about mental health, and now our passion is to share what we have learned.

To be clear, we are not mental health professionals, we are educators and artists. In 2015,  inspired by our own stories, we created a show, She’s Crazy: Mental Health and Other Myths*, featuring our personal experiences with mental health and addiction issues. Because we are artists, we are passionate about creating art that informs, entertains, educates, moves, provokes, persuades, heals, inspires, makes us laugh and cry, makes us think in new ways, and see our world differently. We believe in the transformative power of the arts to bring about change.  

Man Pinching Nose Close-up PhotoAs educators, we are passionate about sharing our knowledge and experiences with our students to help them learn and grow and express themselves because we see the great need. And now, the issue has become even more pressing. Globally, mental health difficulties for adolescents during the pandemic have doubled. And it’s not just our students – 32% of adults say their mental health has gotten worse through the pandemic. 

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared the mental health of America’s youth as “in crisis,” caused by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified an existing critical problem. Dr. Murthy called the challenges that American youths are facing today “unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.” And noted that “everyone has a role to play in combating this mental health pandemic. Without individual engagement, no amount of energy or resources can overcome the biggest barrier to mental health care: the stigma associated with seeking help.”

As teachers, we often have students in office talking about these issues in their lives. Especially now as we return to the classrooms. Students are experiencing ongoing disruption and trauma from the pandemic, which leads to stressors they have not experienced before. It was clear that it was time to take even more action – to reach out to educators who are on the front lines working with students experiencing stress and trauma. Our work grew out of a passionate desire to address this. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a guide for teachers to help students navigate stress and trauma due to the pandemic? We knew that the guide should include the following elements:

  • A protocol/process for how to handle these situations
  • A continuum describing different levels of anxiety
  • Signs and symptoms to look for to recognize a student is struggling
  • Appropriate responses during these conversations
  • A list of national, regional and online resources to refer to and share with your students
  • Sample prompts and tools to build stress relief and anxiety management activities into your classes and rehearsals

We understand that teachers need help to respond appropriately when a student comes to expresses concerns/issues about pandemic disruption in their life. We created the guide and reached out to EdTA and collaborated to produce a webinar format of this guide in a webinar entitled Navigating the Troubled Waters of Student Stress & Trauma, available now on the Educational Theatre Association’s Learning Center. In the webinar, we present our guide for teachers, and discuss the elements in detail. The webinar does not hold teachers responsible for diagnosing or treating their students. Instead, it offers simple concrete strategies to help them cope with student stress, or in the case of deeper trauma, to point students in the right direction to get the support they need.

Because we agree with Dr. Murthy, everyone has a role to play in helping to stop the stigma. You have a role to play in supporting young people and adults. But you don’t have to do it alone. We invite you to watch the webinar and participate in the interactive portions. We think you will find some tools you can use right away and you will be better equipped to handle student stress and trauma, when a student reaches out to you. 

*To learn more about the show She’s Crazy: Mental Health & Other Myths, please visit our website. Topics addressed include depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, PTSD, and suicide. She’s Crazy takes a very unique approach to this very relevant topic – through humor, personal stories and songs.

Sherry McCamley smiles for the camera.Sherry McCamley has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, singer/songwriter, pianist, actor, director, and producer. She also has depression.

Erin McCamley headshotErin McCamley has 10 years of experience as a teacher, composer, actor, conductor, music director, and activist. She also has depression, PTSD, and substance abuse disorder.

Cathy Springfield headshotCathy Springfield has 30 years experience teaching, directing, acting, writing, and producing theatre. She also has bipolar disorder.

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