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Season 1 Episode 12 – Lynn Miller

Dr. Lynn Miller is a leader in mental health issues of school-aged children. Lynn was the President of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada from 2010-2014 and 2018-2019.

In this interview she shares how her work as a schoolteacher inspired her to go back to school to study anxiety, “the most pressing problem of school kids today”. She says, “If we really started with anxiety as this foundational approach with our dollars, then I think that as a society we’d have a much healthier economy, a much healthier family life, much healthier and happier children.”

John Bateman (JB): Hi Lynn, you’re a Scientific Advisory Committee member for anxiety Canada. What’s your anxiety story?  

Lynn Miller (LM): My link to Anxiety Canada and anxiety in general was I was a classroom teacher quite some time ago and I used to have students that I just could not figure out why they were struggling so much. They were smart, they were just the coolest kids on earth. But when there would be something unexpected that happened or a big stakes test or something like that or a social problem that they didn’t know how to figure out, these kids would shut down. And I just loved my job. I loved being a teacher. And some of these kids were hovering around my office after the school day or they’d show up before school the next day. And so I was getting to school earlier and earlier to prepare and I ended up not preparing and just talking to these kids. So I figured out,  there’s something here that I really need to get more training in. Then I went and I got my master’s degree and then I got my PhD and I decided to go with what seemed to be the most pressing problem of school kids today. And that was the anxiety concerns. So when I came to Canada, Doctors Peter Mclean and Maureen Whittal had started Anxiety BC and they said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be the president’?  

LM: And then they said, ‘Well we think you’d be pretty good because you don’t mind speaking to a whole a wide variety of people’, which I don’t. ‘And you’re pretty organized’, which I am. So I was happy to step into that role. And I’ve been working with Anxiety BC, now Anxiety Canada, for the last 20 years.  

JB: That’s incredible. So you were very close to the founding of Anxiety Canada if not right there.

LM: Right. Pretty much right there from the very first month and coincidentally at the same time, the other provincial groups that were active at the time. So there was ADAM in Manitoba, I believe you’ve had some guests on from there. And Quebec and Ontario. So the four provinces decided, maybe we should get together and try to go across Canada and consolidate our efforts. So at the same time that Anxiety BC was starting the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada also started. So I was our provincial rep to them. And we’ve all had the same mandate to get the word out about anxiety because anxiety masquerades as all these other things. People really don’t know what’s happening to them. People are pretty freaked out when it does happen to them or their child. And hopefully we’ve made some big inroads. I mean I see your very handsome face here and you’ve been so clever all day with all these interviews and it’s just so exciting to be part of this.  

JB: Yeah well I’m excited that you’re a part of it because what you’re seeing is where Anxiety British Columbia has progressed to. Now in the beginning you said you were a teacher. What level you were teaching? What were you teaching at that point?  

LM: Yes, I was teaching at a rural school, Grades 7 through 12. And so I taught language arts and social sciences. But it was really the kids who made the difference in a teacher’s life, so I just really, really, really loved being a classroom teacher. But right away I knew I didn’t have enough information. I didn’t know what this was. I didn’t know how to help. Then the more I started delving into this, I started understanding that one, well wait, there’s some really useful things that especially teachers can teach their kids on a daily basis that’s really going to help kids manage this excessive amounts of anxiety. And of course, I was starting with preteens and teenagers. And then over over my career I’ve figured out that the skills that we teach adults, the skills we teach adolescence, we can also teach the youngsters. So they’re the same skills. You just use them a little bit differently, no matter who was having a difficulty learning to manage this anxiety.  

JB: Yeah, definitely. I mean, your realization, when was that?  

LM: It was 1980, if you can believe it.  

JB: Okay. So wait a second. There’s some visionary stuff going on there because I was born in 1968 so in 1980 I was 12 years old. That means I’m in grade six, grade seven. I was at one of the heights of my anxiety and the people I was dealing with, my teachers, nobody seemingly had a clue. And, and I still have a lot now, although I don’t want to be too critical: more so now teachers are getting into this and it’s not necessarily their fault either because there’s all kinds of different things involved in terms of funding and making room for mental health in the school system. But in 1980, that’s baffling to me that you made that realization because you must’ve been part of the very few that had that realization or that had the, the impetus to move in that direction.  

LM: Well I I was just so super duper lucky because I was at a rural school, so the teacher student ratio was much, much smaller. And I really got to know these students, more on an individual level even though I’ve had what we call six different preps, that means I taught six different classes throughout the day. Which is kind of exhausting just doing that. But because of that, I could see how kids would be really thriving in one place where they really felt secure and confident. And in another subject I was still the teacher and they would really be struggling. And it didn’t add up. I really feel lucky that I had the opportunity to figure out my role and their role and some of the things that I just inadvertently did seem to help make them be more calm.  

JB: Yeah. I mean, that’s such an important thing because at the time it definitely was not common. I experienced panic attacks in class: I had a teacher who basically said the world’s gonna end by nuclear war in the next 10 years.

LM: What teachers say sometimes shows a bit of their own vulnerability, that they’re feeling out of sorts with themselves. They don’t know how to help this child. So instead of being compassionate, they better be a bit antagonistic or challenging. And that’s not really what’s needed at that point. Some of the data shows us that teachers really are starting to understand that the social and emotional stability of a child directly is linked to how they’re doing academically. 

JB: Yeah. And how do you see it currently, in terms of mental health being addressed in the public school system?  

LM: Well I’m, I’m out, I’m probably just going to go back to the data showing that 7 out of 10 teachers are saying, ‘Hey, we would really like to have more training’. This is across Canada. ‘We’d really like to have more training in this cause we know it’s a problem. We’re reporting it as our number one stressor in our job’. But there’s very little teacher training going on. If you look at Canada as a whole, and BC is quite different because BC has been on this with educators for the last 20 years. But I would say if you go to Saskatchewan or I know your previous caller is out in Nova Scotia, and they’ve got a terrific research facility out there, but I’m not sure if this is translating to people on the ground, such as teachers, people in the trenches, that and school nurses if we have them. We’re social workers. I think that we’ve got a really big challenge here to get the word out, because this is really the most preventable mental health problem we’ve got and the skills to attack it are readily available. We know exactly what to do, how to help kids, how to help adolescents, how to help adults.  

JB: Yeah. We still have to go a ways in terms of funding these programs in public schools.  

LM: You know, if we want to really get me on a high horse, I think this is exactly where we should be starting. We have a tendency to put large amounts of money after the problem occurs. And for anxiety concerns especially that’s where we should be putting all of our money cause it has so many downstream links to higher rates of depression if you don’t get anxiety treatment, higher rates of using tobacco, higher rates of using disability dollars, higher rates of alcohol abuse. So it all starts with that core nugget, the foundational concern of people just being too anxious and being very freaked out, not knowing what to do about it. And if we really started with anxiety as this foundational approach with our dollars, then I think that as a society we’d have a much healthier economy, a much healthier family life, much healthier and happier children.  

JB: Yeah, definitely. I appreciate all the work you do. My inner child appreciates all the work you do, and definitely Anxiety Canada would not be what it is without you. So I’m really happy that you’re able to join us today. It’s been very valuable for us.  

LM: Well, thanks so much for having me, John, and I think you’ve just done a terrific job with this. Thanks so much. Thank you. I appreciate it. Take care. Bye.