District mental health efforts
February 22, 2022
In January, Emory’s Faculty Staff Assistance Program announced a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools to provide mental health services to employees. The program has been in place since Sep. 1, 2021 but was only communicated within APS.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve seen being in this position is that we can never put too many services on the plate for teachers to choose from to support their wellness,” APS Employee Wellbeing Coordinator Nzinga Benton said. “We have an Employee Assistance Program, which is a call center you call into, and you can set up appointments, but what I noticed is that there’s a need for immediate- need support. And if we can get them at their optimal behavior, health and physical health … then we can help support them to be whole people to support the wholeness of our students.”
The services will be available from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Employees who call Emory’s assistance program will be directed toward cluster liaisons, who will then make a decision about how to assist the caller. Two liaisons, all licensed medical professionals, have been assigned to each cluster. Since the establishment of the program, 17
APS employees have used the service. “They have called for a myriad of reasons and the top issues have been as follows: stress, acute stress, as well as general stress, that includes areas related to burnout, anxiety, depression and health-related concerns,” Dr. Marilyn Lineberger, the senior director of Emory’s assistance program, said.
The service also provides leadership consultations for APS officials who need advice regarding large-scale events that could harm employee mental health.
“With the leadership consultations, we have primarily been working with the Office of Employee Wellbeing, as well as receiving calls from some school principals,” Dr. Lineberger said. “These consultations have involved the following areas: staff deaths, student deaths, and some of the concerns related to this thing called the ongoing COVID pandemic.”
Even though the program began on Sep. 1, many teachers have been unaware of it until now.
“I still have heard nothing from the district,” teacher Mario Herrera said. “I have no idea how it works. All I know is from that post by Emory about what it offers.”
Information about the program has been spread through some of APS’s channels.
“We are working on internally with just getting the word,” Benton said. “I met with principals. That was the very first thing we did. We wanted to make sure all leaders knew. At the principal’s retreat, we did a huge presentation to let them know that this service was available. We sent out an email. We sent it out in the staff newsletter. It’s been in the newsletter a couple of times. It’s also on our wellbeing website.”
In addition, APS provides counseling sessions for employees and their families.
“We have our EAP, which is Employee Assistance Program, and we have it set up for employees that want ongoing counseling or to start counseling,” Benton said. “The employee assistance program is provided to each teacher, staff member, their spouse and children. They get three free counseling sessions per year per challenge. Say they’re dealing with depression, they can schedule three sessions for depression, then days, months, weeks later, they can call about anxiety.”
Although teachers appreciate the program, many have a hard time taking advantage of it.
“I think that is incredible,” Herrera said. “I think that it is something that probably needs to stay in place for years. Have I wanted to use it? Yes. Have I? No. Why? I’m overwhelmed and [because of] time. It’s a catch-22.”
Some teachers also do not know about the services APS provides.
“My wife died in 2013; I didn’t really seek out a lot of help,” Curtis said. “I just puttered along with my life and focused on taking care of others, which is what teaching has done for me … If I had known what outlets were available, I probably would have taken them.”
Some teachers also fear that they may be stigmatized for seeking mental health support.
“I won’t lie, as adults, we also worry about anonymity and things like that,” Curtis said. “What if someone from my school finds out I’m in counseling for depression or something? Am I going to be stigmatized in my job?”
APS is also piloting a mindfulness course with four employees. The program may expand district-wide in the future.
“It’s an eight-week course that teaches yoga practices and mindfulness practices for educators,” Benton said.
Recently, the Office of Wellbeing introduced a program to grant every APS school money to build or improve a zen room. “We were able to allocate $3,000 per school site for schools to establish and or, if they already have one, to beef up their zen room for staff,” Benton said. “I would love for us to be a culture where, if we walked by a classroom and saw a teacher with his or her head down, that our first thought is not that they are sleeping on the job but that our first thought is that they’re taking a moment for themselves. If we can create an environment where it is okay to take a moment for yourself because then you can best support our students.”
Herrera believes that the intention behind the zen rooms is good, but that they don’t address teachers’ needs.
“Waste of money,” Herrera said. “No one asked teachers what they needed … On some level, I appreciate the effort but talk to us. Why are teachers never part of the conversation when it involves teachers?”
APS is also making other general changes to address employee wellbeing.
“We added to the superintendent’s contract for her to have 10 mental health days,” Olympiadis said. “We’re not giving 10 mental health days to all employees, but I believe that [adding mental health days to the superintendent’s contract] falls in line with some HR enhancement. We have incentivized staff with a pay increase of $1,000 to help ease stress or the financial stress. We have given incentives around getting vaccinated and allowing more leave.”
Barber, while grateful for the financial bonus, believes its benefits are minimal.
“No teacher’s gonna say, ‘We don’t need any more money,’ but by the time we’re taxed on that, and it’s divided by 12 months, it’s really not that much money,” Barber said. “My understanding is not that this money was to help appease mental health demands, I mean, the money does not help day-in and day-out, the strain on our life.”
Science teacher Pierre Davis believes district and school-level approaches to mental health have been effective for teachers.
“They seem to understand,” Davis said. “It’s only so much they can do. They’re offering teachers this and that from the SEL (Social Emotional Learning) curriculum … recommending that people take mental health days. Even Dr. Bockman (Principal Dr. Betsy Bockman) has been great. She gives us regular messages just to let us know she understands what we’re going through, and she’s in it with us. Small things like that do help, but at the same time, it doesn’t erase the stress that we receive. It’s nice to know that people do understand.”
Davis also said his stress decreased when he moved to Midtown.
“I’ve had some tough situations, and that was even before the pandemic compounded the stresses of the job,” Davis said. “That’s actually how I got to Grady. At that time, I left a very stressful teaching job in the middle of the year and was hired by Principal Guiney (former Principal Timothy Guiney), and almost all of that stress was just released by a change of scenery. That’s why I try not to stress too much, because I know how bad it can get because I’ve been in those bad situations.”
However, teachers, like Math Department Chair Vicki Vinson, believe problems are more complicated and would like more support with mental health days for teachers.
“Because of the [lack of] subs, it’s hard to take a day off,” Vinson said. “Any last-minute teachers that get sick and can’t come makes it difficult. We really need to have more support for wellness days.”