A Music Educator’s Mental Health Journey
“Music has … helped me process emotions, trauma, and grief
and helped boost my psychological well being.”
Spotlight on Tonya Hylton-Campbell, ETM-LA Instructional Supervisor
Tell us about yourself (including your background as an educator and musician).
This is always one of those questions that I feel is super hard to answer!
Can you describe your mental health journey, and what resources and tools have helped you throughout? Who and/or what encouraged you to seek assistance?
Mental health has indeed been a journey! I don’t always think I’ve had the verbiage to describe what was happening to me mentally, but, I could tell that something was wrong. [Before coming to ETM-LA,] it was during my 6th year of teaching General Music and Choir that I think everything came to a head for me. Earlier during the school year, I was on medical leave due to having a callous on one vocal cord and a cyst on the other.
My vocal cords were not closing properly, and I could not phonate. For those who are not familiar with this terminology: phonation is the process, in which your vocal cords touch and vibrate, in order to produce sound. Air is expelled through the glottis from the lungs, creating a pressure drop in your larynx. As a vocalist and choir director, you can imagine how scary this time was. My voice is my instrument. Ultimately, I ended up having vocal cord surgery to correct the issue and was on vocal rest for a full two months coupled with speech therapy, in order to regain the use of my instrument. I started taking a hard look at how I ended up in this position, the damage I was doing to my voice, how this damage was hurting my ability to serve my students, and maintain the creativity I needed for my own happiness. I ended up having a severe panic attack. In my situation, the panic attack felt like I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t steady my breathing, the room felt like it was closing down on me. I knew at that moment, I had reached the edge of my mental cliff.
That evening, my wife, Samantha plainly said to me, “I can’t lose you to this.” The next morning, I turned in my letter of resignation to my school and scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I needed help. I had no idea what that looked like, but I knew I had to speak to a professional. The encouragement from my wife was the reality check that I needed. I had a responsibility to the people in my life to be my best self.
There tends to be a lot of shame associated with mental health disorders and recognizing that your anxiety disorders, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders, or whatever category your needs might fall under. Part of journeying through that shame lies in both educating yourself about whatever your particular condition might be, and also, reframing in your mind what recovery can look like. In my instance, recovery and moving forward came in the form of medication and stabilizing the chemical imbalances in my brain. For many, this looks differently. Moving past that shame is the biggest step you can take toward loving who you are in all forms. Some of my biggest resources have been my therapist and psychiatrist, both professionals to help guide me in my emotional and psychological needs. I’m also fortunate to have a community of people who understand mental illness, and if they don’t they’re willing to try. Discussion and communication is always a mitigating factor in whether or not a person succeeds and takes control as they are on their mental health journey.
Are there any common misconceptions about mental health issues or people who experience them that you would like to address?
My experiences and understanding about mental health will always be from the perspective of a black woman, navigating that community and unlearning the misconceptions that have generationally held much of our community captive around mental health issues. Within the black community, there tends to be a stigma associated with mental health. What many may not understand is just how debilitating mental health can be for one’s productivity, relationships, self-awareness, ability to connect, and life balance. The black community categorizes mental health as a weakness rather than an illness that simply needs a doctor, too. As a result, the community tends to perpetuate stereotypes that often inhibit practical and feasible ways of mental health outreach. On the flip side, I’ve seen this generation of young black leaders move the conversation forward, from being something that is considered taboo into a space of relatability and safety. I have a lot of hope in our young black leaders because I truly believe they are going to be the ones to show that we can be strong and still receive help while living with mental health issues.
“Moving past that shame is the biggest step you can take towarD
loving who you are in all forms.”
How has music and music education played a part in your journey?
I’ve studied and worked primarily in the area of choral music. I’m currently finishing up my second Master’s degree in Choral Conducting, and it has served almost as a rebirth…maybe even a rediscovery of music, music education, and the purpose that it serves in my life. So much of who I am as a musician has been connected to the very text that comes from some of my favorite choral pieces. The discovery of the story, the intentions of the composer/arrangers, the nuance of the chord progressions, the small details that help to paint pictures in the minds of the listeners, the connectedness of the breathing, the steadiness of the conducting, that brief pause before we all take that initial breath are off to the races for a possible 2 minutes and 12 seconds. Immersing myself in the music in this way has allowed music to serve as a change agent in my life, helping to regulate my anxiety and depression in dramatic ways. Music has, on more than one occasion, helped me process emotions, trauma, and grief and helped boost my psychological well being.
How have you seen your journey manifest in being able to create a safe space for students?
As I walked my own mental health journey, I became more and more invested in understanding the root of behavioral issues and the stresses of my students. I became incredibly invested in the way my classroom atmosphere set them up to engage one another. I became critical of the way I gave feedback, always framing the positive and leading to discovery rather than critiquing and criticizing. I demanded not perfection, but questions and their best effort. When students were having a bad day, we talked about it, and students worked through it. The music room quickly became a place where students spoke their truth and felt respected and safe enough to share their feelings. We tend to forget that these are growing little human beings, who don’t have it all figured out. What might seem like a small instance to us as an adult, is a huge deal in the mind of a 10-year-old, who is figuring out how to navigate disagreements with a best friend for example. They needed a space to do that and I was more than happy to provide that space. The biggest contribution to my understanding was the reading and constant research I had to do. Some of my favorite resources include the following books:
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life by Dr. Brene Brown
- The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan
- We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers Multiracial Schools by Gary R. Howard
- Why Race and Culture Matters In Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms by Tyrone C. Howard
- Implementing Restorative Practices in Schools: A Practical Guide to Transforming School Communities by Margaret Thorsborne and Peta Blood
- Managing Your Classroom With Heart: A Guide for Nurturing Adolescent Learners by Katy Ridnouer
- Yardsticks: Child and Adolescent Development Ages 4-14 by Chip Wood
- We Want to do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Dr. Bettina Love
- Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self Doubt Within a Creative Life by Dale Trumbore
- Dare to Lead by Dr. Brene Brown
- Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Fear and Panic by Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett
- For White Folks that Teach in the Hood….And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
In your current role as an Instructional Supervisor, how do you work with your music teachers in helping them create that safe space and support their students’ mental health?
I try to push the importance of taking the time to get to know and understand the children, their families, the school community, etc. Relationship building is the foundation that good teaching is built on. I learned very early on in my teaching career, that children don’t learn from people they don’t like. Gaining their trust by making sure they feel valued as people, makes all the difference in whether or not you’re able to engage a child. My teachers are so wonderful about asking the right questions out of concern for the students and their well being. I hear stories of teachers going out to recess and playing with the kids, students wanting to come and eat lunch with them in the music room. All of these small details matter, and make a huge difference in gaining the trust of the very children we service.
What would your advice be for people who are experiencing mental health issues during this challenging time?
It’s interesting because I think giving ‘advice’ to people during a time in history that none of us have ever experienced or gone through isn’t wise. It’s one of those “read the room” moments. What I can say, is that we are all doing the best that we can. Mental health challenges are certainly amplified in a way that most aren’t equipped to handle, but again, we’re all doing the best we can. One of the things we tend to forget is that mental health issues are in fact different for each person. Mental health is not a monolithic experience. It is personal, specific, delicate, and individualized for each person that it impacts. Instead of framing and providing what some might consider unsolicited advice, I can actively promote the aspect of self-kindness, and self-compassion as we try to navigate both this unprecedented time in history as well as it’s emotional and mental impact.
Why do you feel that it’s important to share your story publicly?
During this critical time in our country, I think we’re in a reality that is forcing us to rely on each other to be safe and well. So much of our mental health has been impacted by the lack of in-person connectedness, and I would say that it’s brought about not only awareness but a huge amount of empathy as well. Empathy, that these days, seems to be all but missing in our day to day lives.
When we share our stories, it reminds us that everyone is going through something. No one is exempt from life yanking them by the collar at some point or another. No matter where you’re from, what you may look like, who you vote for, your socioeconomic status, or what you believe in, sharing your story publicly is simply saying to the world, “Yes, I’m struggling too. It may not look like it, but I am!” And most importantly, THAT’S OK! The stories help to remove the walls that are often built up because of societal expectations, assumptions about ethnic groups, ageism, racism, sexism, classicism, and any other “ism” that tries to tell your story before you get the opportunity to.
The stories help us view each other as human.
Black people need to be viewed as human. Disabled people need to be viewed as human. Immigrants need to be viewed as human. The LGBTQIA community needs to be viewed as human. Children on the spectrum need to be viewed as human. ELL students need to be viewed as human. Our teachers need to be viewed as human. The Latinx community needs to be viewed as human. The Asian community needs to be viewed as human. Telling our stories publicly means we are choosing to tell the truth.
What do you want people to know about Education Through Music-Los Angeles?
I want people to know that we are here and we exist. We’re a dedicated small team with big dreams and even bigger goals for our kids. We believe in the power of music and its ability to transform the lives of children. We’ve seen it happen, we’ve experienced it, and we want every child to have it. Education Through Music-Los Angeles believes in the communities that we serve, and the children we encounter every day.
– Tonya Hylton-Campbell