Building mental strength: an interview with author Amy Morin
Like most things in my life, I first found out about Amy Morin‘s book, 13 things mentally strong people don’t do, online. I think somebody had read it and was recommending it. It came at a perfect time too: I don’t know about you, but mental health is something that is increasingly demanding more of my attention, both as a teacher and in life in general. It feels like barely a week goes by without news stories that in some way or another highlight the mental health crisis that is looming in the UK. If you work with young people, it’s not something you can ignore.
So, I bought Amy’s book because I’m very interested in anything to do with mental health and wellbeing and in particular the practical steps we can take to make a positive impact on this, both for ourselves as teachers and the children we teach. Plus, she’s a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, practising in the U.S., and is speaking from experience.
To give you a bit of background, the book actually started life as a blog post that was picked up by Forbes and went viral. I’m thrilled that despite being hugely sought after and busy, Amy has taken the time to let me pick her brains about mental strength from a teacher’s perspective for my first ever blog interview. I hope you enjoy it and find Amy’s work as useful as I have.
Claire: Your best-selling book, 13 things mentally strong people don’t do, started out as an article online that went viral and then some! It clearly struck a chord. Why do you think so many people took the time to read it and felt the need to share it?
Amy: I think my article struck a chord in part because a lot of people weren’t familiar with mental strength. They didn’t know what it meant and wanted to know more. Additionally, I think the fact the title talked about what not to do made it a little different too.
I’d also written it from the heart, as a letter to myself. So unlike a lot of the things I write, it was more personal and passionate than usual.
C: How would you define mental strength? Is it the same as mental health?
A: There are three parts to mental strength: thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. It’s important to be able to regulate your thoughts, so that you aren’t thinking overly negative or overly positive thoughts. You also need to be able to manage your emotions, so your emotions don’t control you. And finally, mental strength involves behaving productively despite whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
Mental strength isn’t the same as mental health. Someone with depression for example, may struggle with mental health issues. But, that person can still choose to make choices to grow mentally stronger. It’s similar to physical health and physical strength. Someone with a physical health issue like diabetes could still choose to work out and grow physically stronger.
C: As a teacher myself, I often try to frame things in a positive light when it comes to behaviour management techniques, e.g. tell a student what they should do rather than shouldn’t do, so it’s interesting to me that you have based your book around things we should avoid in order to develop mental strength. Can you explain why you took this approach?
There’s so much advice out there about what we should do. But sometimes, working smarter and not harder, is about subtracting things from our lives.
If you work out, but you keep eating lots of junk food, you aren’t going to get very far. So sometimes, working smarter is about giving up what holds you back.
My message was about the shortcuts that we all sometimes take. They make us feel better in the moment but do nothing to solve our problems over the long-term.
Giving up what holds us back helps us move forward toward our greatest potential so we can become better and stronger.
C: ‘Resilience’ and ‘character’ are huge buzzwords in UK education right now. In fact, the Secretary of State for Education pledged £3.5 million to develop this in UK schools. Do you think this is something schools can help with? Can these qualities be taught in the classroom?
A: The classroom is a great place for children to practice their skills. Kids can learn how to learn from their mistakes and how to bounce back from failure. They can also learn a lot through their relationships with others if given a little coaching and support. For example, children can benefit from learning how to practice saying no to things they don’t want to do or how to celebrate other kids’ success.
C: The lack of resources for children’s mental health has been in the UK news for some time now. In your practice as a psychotherapist, what sort of mental health issues do you see affecting young people? Are there patterns forming and should we be paying more attention to mental health?
A: I see a lot of cases of depression, anxiety, and ADHD in children. Unfortunately, the symptoms often go untreated and undiagnosed for years.
Early intervention is the key to good treatment. It’s important for adults to be on the lookout for the warning signs of mental health issues so a child can be screened for potential problems as soon as possible.
C: How can we begin talking to children and young people about the complex topic of mental health?
A: Just like we talk to kids about physical health, it’s important to talk openly about mental health. Making it a common topic of conversation could reduce a lot of the stigma that is attached to mental health problems.
Kids can learn what steps they can take to proactively stay mentally healthy. They can also learn how to talk to an adult if they’re struggling with problems.
C: In keeping with the title of your book, and because many teachers love a list (myself included!), can you share three things that teachers shouldn’t do to help build mentally strong young people?
Don’t waste time feeling sorry yourself – when bad things happen, hosting a pity party will keep you stuck. While it’s OK to feel sad, don’t allow yourself to exaggerate your misfortune. Keep things in proper perspective.
Don’t shy away from change – the educational system is constantly changing. Resisting change will only deplete your time and energy. Be flexible and stay open to doing things differently.
Don’t expect immediate results – whether you’re teaching new skills or you’re trying a new teaching method, patience and persistence is key. Kids will learn by watching you and it’s important for them to learn how to work toward their goals at a slow, but steady pace.
Thanks again to Amy Morin for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy 13 things mentally strong people don’t do from Amazon now.
How are you addressing mental health and well-being in your school? Is this something that you are having to deal with more and more? How do you take care of your own mental health? Feel free to add the conversation in the comments below.