two blurred figures in school hallway

Week 3: Reaching Corps Members with Mental Health Support

Coley Williams (L.A. '06), a licensed marriage and family therapist, shares how her corps member experience led to her current career path.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Eleven years after the corps, Teach For America remains among the hardest things I’ve ever done. It also remains the life event that has shaped me in more ways than I could ever articulate.

As a corps member, it can feel impossible to prioritize our health. Unless we’re throwing up, or bleeding from an ear, we’re likely to still show up for our kids. Perhaps even less visible than our physical health is our mental health, so that’s even more difficult to prioritize.

In 2007, when I first entered my middle school classroom in Los Angeles, life was overwhelming. While I was embarking upon the most difficult thing I‘d ever tackled, it’s not as if I’d magically found the pause button that would suspend all other aspects of my life.

By my third month in the classroom, my parents had announced that they would separate after 25 years of marriage, my boyfriend of four years who had made the move with me to Los Angeles was arriving at his sixth month of unemployment, and my primary support system of friends were living in different time zones—and certainly not working from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. like I was.

I was frustrated, anxious, livid, and just plain sad—with the system, with myself, with my parents…with just about everything and everyone.

While my fellow corps members had their own respective needs at the time, in my case, I had to face the fact that I needed more support. So, I took a brave step to seek help. By some miracle I persevered in navigating the complicated mental health care system and I found a therapist. I worked with her throughout my two years in the corps and beyond. I have no doubt that the reason I’m able to consider TFA to have been a life-changing experience is because I had the support of my therapist throughout my time with the corps.

During my time in therapy, I came to realize that the challenges that had lead me to feeling miserable reached much deeper than those already mentioned of which I was aware. And while for some this might seem like an overwhelming discovery, for me, it was soothing. Becoming aware of all of the psychological underpinnings that were being stirred in the classroom brought comfort, acceptance, and self-compassion.

After Teach For America, I returned to graduate school to study marriage and family therapy. Today, I’m a licensed psychotherapist, and the past two school years, I’ve returned to my roots, as I’m currently consulting with TFA–Los Angeles about the reality of corps members’ mental health needs.

We have tough conversations about cultural components of the experience that contribute to needing to prioritize mental health. Above all, I’ve run psychotherapy groups with corps members who request them, which is an experience that I can say with confidence has been transformative for them and me.

This past November, I integrated my new startup, Level Therapy, into these services. What makes my startup unique is that I train each of our therapists about the experiences and challenges that are part of every corps member’s journey to make therapy accessible and applicable to them.

To put it simply, the work we do as Teach For America corps members is hard. To sustain it, we have no choice but to nurture our own capacity to serve.

Level Therapy would like to extend a 20 percent discount to all current corps members and TFA alumni; please use the code tfamhm.

We want to hear from you about what you have thought about our teacher wellness focus during Mental Health Month and ideas for other ways we can promote a community of wellness. Teachers, share your thoughts with us in this survey and you will be entered to win a wellness giveaway. 

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