Teachers Are Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis, Too

Kentucky school bus / return to in-person learning

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Key Takeaways

  • New research reveals that teachers are facing a similar mental health crisis to students without the requisite access to support.
  • The Ohio School Wellness Initiative is working to end the mental health crisis in schools by helping institutions address the needs of both students and teachers.
  • Experts say it's vital that teachers have access to much-needed mental health supports both during and after the pandemic.

All over the country, students and teachers have been walking out of schools in protest of unsafe learning and working conditions amid the Omicron surge.

New research suggests that teachers are facing a similar mental health crisis to students, but they're left with little support.

In a recent assessment conducted by Miami University in Ohio, nearly two-thirds of teachers reported increased concern for emotional exhaustion, while three out of five reported concerns about anxiety.

Researchers told Verywell via email that while teachers are feeling isolated and depressed, they're much less likely than students to have access to mental health resources in school.

"I'm feeling at a zero, but I walk into the class and I have to pretend I'm at 100%," Quennie G., an elementary school teacher in Toronto, Canada who is currently on stress leave from her job, told Verywell. "I have to just do my thing, teach my lesson, be engaging, be supportive, be patient with them, but I myself feel like I'm pouring from an empty cup."

Quennie teaches at an elementary school in a low socioeconomic area of Toronto, where students were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic. She said she's been struggling with her mental health ever since school returned to in-person learning and she began to witness an alarming increase in violence in the halls. 

"Kids need to know their schedule on a day-to-day—that's how they cope," she said, explaining that she's seen everything from children trying to push each other over the stairwell banister to students slamming each other's heads into bathroom doors this year.

"When they don't have a set routine, behaviors start to change and that's where we're noticing the violence is coming from," she added. "If they don't know what to expect, they're anxious, and they're showing it through violence."

The lack of socialization students experienced for the better part of two years is also a contributor, she said, as kids have had little experience learning how to communicate and resolve conflicts with one another.

As Quennie started to see an increase in student violence, she started staying up late at night researching new methods to help students navigate difficult emotions. Often spending her nights in distress about what she'd seen earlier that day, she began to experience extreme sleep deprivation and night sweats, which in turn made it even more difficult to do her challenging job.

"It really messes with your mental health because you can't really feel the stress you're feeling because you have to put on this show for the kids," she said. "And I want to, because I love them and I care about them."

Ross Greene, PhD

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that schools are a workplace—just like hospitals—and a stressful one at that.

— Ross Greene, PhD

Mental Health Concerns Left Unacknowledged

When Quennie voiced her concerns to the school administration, she was told that the situation was the same at every school. And there was simply no budget to hire an additional person to provide her with an extra set of eyes in the classroom.

There were also no real consequences for students who were exhibiting violent behavior and monitoring student safety fell back onto her shoulders, she said.

Quennie tried to cope with her mental health by binge eating, and at one point, she was taking a day off every week just to be able to function. 

Eventually, the physical manifestations of her mental health struggles became too much to ignore, and she received a doctor's note to go on stress leave for the rest of the school year. Throughout the months between the return to in-person and her leave, Quennie said she was never offered any kind of substantial support from the school.

"I didn't get any [resources or support], just a little 'Hope you feel better soon' message, but nothing really helpful," she said. "I actually went out on my own and started doing therapy, and then I went to talk to my doctor. I'm on antidepressants now, I'm journaling, doing all these things, but that came through my therapist—that didn't come through the workplace."

Ross Greene, PhD, a psychologist who's worked with children with behavioral issues for over 30 years, told Verywell he's seen an increase in teachers who need his support as much as students during the pandemic.

"It's easy to lose sight of the fact that schools are a workplace—just like hospitals—and a stressful one at that." Greene said. "Educators are expected to meet the vastly different academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs of individual students while simultaneously meeting the demands of high stakes testing, deal with parents, and adapt to every new initiative that comes down the pike."

Despite low pay and lack of recognition, most educators were juggling all of those tasks even before the pandemic, he added.

"If you add additional stress to an already stressful scenario—and if the additional stress lasts a long time—people are naturally going to become mentally exhausted and run out of gas," Greene said.

Working on a Solution

Deb Robison, LSW, one of the researchers of the Miami University report, said she heard from many teachers with similar experiences to Quennie during listening sessions with school staff.

Along with their research, Robison and her team at the Ohio School Wellness Initiative are working to solve the student and teacher mental health crises by developing and implementing a three-component framework that includes a statewide Student Assistance Program (SAP) model, strengthening specialized interventions for youth and addressing staff mental wellness. 

Robison and her team recruited 80 pilot schools from across the state of Ohio, though a few have dropped out. She said they've been working with these schools to provide technical assistance and support as they implement all three components of the program, which they developed based on the findings from their research.  

For the staff mental wellness component, pilot schools are encouraged to implement best practices to support staff wellness, professional resilience, secondary trauma prevention, resiliency, self-care, and more. 

Educators want their leaders to "lead with vulnerability," Robison said.

"By that they meant, share when something was bothering them. They didn't want their leader to be the strong and silent type, but express when they were struggling as well. It helped the staff not to feel like they were the only ones with challenges," she said.

The schools are advised to adopt human resource department policies related to employee assistance programs, such as mental health days. They also receive specific guidelines on supporting their staff who are at risk of or experiencing substance abuse and mental health disorders, such as offering depression screening.

The ongoing research at the Ohio School Wellness Initiative provides a framework for student and teacher support that can be implemented throughout the state of Ohio. It can potentially be modeled in other states to address the growing mental health crisis in schools, according to Robison.

Greene said that similar mental health support frameworks are much needed for the wellbeing of educators, who have played a crucial role in helping students maneuver unprecedented stress from the pandemic.

"It all starts with listening to educators, hearing them, taking their concerns seriously, and being responsive to what they're telling us," Greene said.

What This Means For You

If you're a teacher who is struggling with your mental health amid the pandemic, know you're not alone. Reach out to your administration and ask for help, and seek outside support if resources are not available at your workplace.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.