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Mel Gravely
September-19-2022

Supporting the Mental Health of Head Start Staff

head start mental healthEarlier this past summer, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) announced a new initiative for supporting the mental health of the staff within its member programs. In a press release at the time, NHSA explained that the initiative is meant to address the “unique set of difficult and challenging stressors” that Head Start staff face. In partnership with a company that provides online cognitive behavioral therapy, NHSA is offering members access to a variety of online tools to assess and care for their mental health, from assessments to live training sessions and more.

“We hope this program will deliver the support and training to the Head Start people so they can care for themselves and their families,” NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci said.

NHSA goes on to talk about the initiative as the first time in their history that they’re providing direct services to individuals within member Head Start programs. In the past, most of their focus was on government advocacy and professional development. So why mental health? And why now?

While the NHSA doesn’t come right out and say why now, they might as well.

“The people who power Head Start play a crucial role, one that has never been more important nor more challenging,” explained the CEO of Ayogo Health, NHSA’s partner in this initiative.

So in a word: COVID-19. In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the alarm about the often invisible mental health crisis looming in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“A great number of people have reported psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress,” the WHO writes.

The National Head Start Association says that recent studies show that early childhood education workers in particular report higher numbers of depression than other education professionals.

“86% of ECEs reported feeling depressed with 10% reporting being severely depressed,” NHSA writes. “It is higher than any other professions within education, and yet more than 60% do not seek help.”

NHSA recognizes that there is a problem with mental health wellness in the early childhood education sector and that the problem is big enough that they needed to act. Anecdotally, I’m sure many of us have stories to tell. Co-workers who complain about stress and burnout and have even quit the profession because of it. Perhaps we even feel that way ourselves.

It’s true that those who have a direct roll in care work often neglect taking care of themselves. Considering what WHO says about the potential for a world mental health crisis, we thought we would talk about some of the ways that we have seen Head Start agencies across the country support the mental health of staff as well as provide a supportive environment for all employees.

What Resources are Already Available?
Before you start putting together webinars and handouts and a bunch of other information for staff, be sure to compile the existing resources that are available.

Reach out to your health insurance benefits provider. Understand the mental health coverage that is offered to employees and ask them what kind of easy-to-understand information they have that you can distribute to your staff. For example, does the benefits provider offer telehealth for mental health services? How would an individual go about accessing that? Also, what are the requirements for pre-authorization for mental health services?

Of course, if you are a member of the NHSA, you can take advantage of their new initiative mentioned above.

Lastly, always check ECKLC for resources. They have an entire section on their website for staff mental health, with downloadable posters, recorded webinars, tip sheets, and so much more.

Encourage Meaningful Self-Care
Ok, ok. I know. This term has been overused to death. Even the Gravely Group fell into the self-care trap in 2017 when we posted a blog called “Staff Appreciation: How to Care for Ourselves“. In the end, self-care as an industry was probably just another way to sell us stuff we didn’t need. And even with all the self-care products we bought in the 2010s, stress, burnout, and depression were on the rise at the end of the decade.

Now that it appears we’re on the other side of the worst part of the pandemic, the self-care of scented candles and bubble baths now seems quaint. In an article from The Washington Post called “Have we been doing self-care all wrong?,” a Seattle teenager put a fine point on it.

“No amount of bath bombs will change what the virus did to this neighborhood, and what it did to me,” she told the newspaper. “But I believe self-care is the only reason I’m still here.”

We’re not going to recommend that you to ask staff to do yoga at their desk or pay for an expensive massage every week. But we are going to ask that you help them find the time to take a break from work and do things that they enjoy. Even the Office of Head Start encourages Head Start employees to not check emails outside of work hours. Managers should model a healthy work-life balance for employees and respect work/personal life boundaries so that staff have the time and energy to find joy outside of work, no matter what they choose to do.

Fostering Leadership
Except for that very small portion of the population who moves to the woods to live off the land in complete isolation, practically everyone wants to feel like they are part of a community. It’s human nature to want to be a part of something. We are a tribal species. But I want to go further than that. I think that humans not only want to be part of something, but they want to feel like they are an important part of something.

Everyone in your organization should have some leadership responsibilities so that they can feel they are an important part of the whole. What are you doing in your organization to help staff build their leadership skills? Are you matching an individual’s skills with the appropriate responsibilities? Are you praising them for a job well done? Are you providing constructive feedback? Talking with Head Start agencies all over the country, those that foster a sense of leadership within each of their staff members are the ones with the highest retention rates and job satisfaction amongst employees.

Talk Openly and Often about Mental Health
One of the issues that those with mental health problems face is the fear of stigmatization. Remember that a Head Start workplace is a safe space for employees to express their concerns for themselves and for each other. If you have a physical wellness program or initiative, be sure to include mental health as a part of it. For example, you can hold special programming during Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Throughout the rest of the year, use the resources provided above to help educate staff on recognizing the early signs of a mental health issues. And lastly, make sure that staff know the appropriate channels to use if they decide to reach out for help.

Just like the pandemic was unprecedented in our lifetime, the aftermath will be too. It’s part of our role as leaders in our Head Start organizations to help staff navigate the often complex web of mental health support services that are available to them. Taking care of our mental health is just as important as any other aspect of our health. When we as Head Start staff are healthy, both mentally and physically, we can better serve children, families, and our communities.

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