Teacher uses his own struggles to advocate for fellow educators’ mental health

CHARLOTTE — A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher is advocating for educators to protect their mental health after his own journey and now, a nonprofit is offering free therapy for people like him and his colleagues.

Justin Ashley’s classroom at Community House Middle School in south Charlotte is filled with personality, just like the teacher who claims the space. His teaching style is unique, including music videos on the constitution and a competitive game involving a giant map.

“It’s a game called tap the states,” he said.

His teaching has won him awards and accolades, including North Carolina History Teacher of the Year. But under that sunny disposition and bright, white smile, Ashley says he struggles with his mental health, which can often be triggered by overwhelming stress.

“I was trying to be this superhero teacher for kids,” he said.

Working upwards of 60 hours a week, he said he barely saw his family and no longer recognized himself. He went to rehab to treat his depression, anxiety, and prescription drug addiction in 2014, but many of those same struggles showed up during the pandemic.

He coped through counseling.

“Instead of once a month, it became once a week,” Ashley said.

He’s now advocating for other educators to seek help in the midst of the burnout.

“Sometimes teachers -- we need to be students,” he said. “We need to be students of our own emotions.”

But therapy can often be expensive. Presbyterian Psychological Services, or Presby Psych, is offering five free therapy sessions to all CMS teachers and other district employees starting this week. The president of the Charlotte nonprofit said the organization will cover half the copay after that, too.

“Mental health stress and conditions, they don’t just affect the mind and the psyche, they affect the body as well,” said Dr. Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea. “Many disease conditions are correlated with mental health issues.”

As a history teacher, Ashley knows if you don’t learn from your past, you’re bound to repeat it. He keeps photos to remind him to keep going -- for his wife, for his kids and for his students -- and to remind him to maintain healthy boundaries with work.

“I’m not going to lose my heart for everything else because my heart is so wrapped up in the classroom,” Ashley said.

Presby Psych started offering a similar program to first responders back in November. Right now, roughly 60 police officers, firefighters and health care professionals are enrolled in the treatment program.

To sign up for the CMS employees program, click here.

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