Why School Wellness Isn’t Just for Kids: Many Teachers are Stressed and Depressed

The stress and anxiety that often accompanies teachers' jobs has a hugely negative effect on teacher performance and personal life. In fact, about one in 20 teachers has a long-lasting mental health issue.

Teaching is not a nine to five job. Responsibilities are not confined to the work space, and teachers are not often able to distance themselves from work or student involvement when at home. Teaching, really, is an emotionally taxing profession.

Many teachers feel defeated at the end of the day. They didn’t get to the lesson plan that day. One of their students is acting out, but the teacher doesn’t have the means to help them. Parents can be difficult to work with. But teachers do what they do because of one thing: they love their students, and they believe in the power of education.

It’s no surprise many teachers struggle with some form of mental health problem. In fact, a recent study from the UCL Institute of Education reports that one in every 20 teachers (or about five percent) suffer with a mental illness that has lasted, or is likely to last, more than a year. More on this study below.

Yes, awareness about teacher mental health is growing. However, there is not nearly enough being done to mitigate the issue, and many might not realize how common it is—or what is contributing to the problem. The following studies outline the mental health risks trends researchers are finding among teachers and school professionals. The results are not necessarily uplifting.

American Teachers Are Struggling
2015 Survey by the American Federation of Teachers

One survey from five years ago suggests a concerning reality for the nation’s educators.
After the Badass Teachers Association received a number of reports of high teacher stress, a group of teachers who are members of the American Federation of Teachers designed a survey that was filled out by over 30,000 educators.

The survey circulated via email and social media. It had 80 questions and was only online between April 21 and May. The survey was the first of its kind.

Of the thousands of respondents, 80 percent were teachers/special education teachers; eight percent were counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and librarians; and 12 percent held other positions in schools. Over two thirds of respondents had been in education for over 10 years, and nearly 98 percent of respondents worked in a public school.

The survey’s questions addressed a number of topics that affect teacher/school employee happiness, mental health, stress levels, and more.

Most respondents’ enthusiasm for their profession decreased as they spent more time in their school-related career. Many of respondents said they felt disrespected by elected officials, school boards, supervisors, students’ parents, and students themselves. And nearly 73 percent of respondents said they “often” find their work stressful.

Education workplaces have a multitude of moving parts, and not every school is the same. However, the survey did identify trends in the causes of teacher stress, for example. Among the biggest sources of teacher stress were:

  • Adoption of new initiative without proper training or professional development
  • Negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media
  • Uncertain job expectations
  • Salary

These are the big-picture career stressors the survey identified. Respondents said that time pressure, student disciplinary issues, lack of opportunity to use the restroom, and student aggression were among the biggest everyday stressors in the workplace. Mandated curriculum, large class sizes, and standardized testing were among the biggest everyday stressors in the classroom.

To make matters more complicated, the survey also asked respondents about rates of bullying and assault against teachers. Many teachers are assaulted or threatened in a school setting, and many are bullied by fellow coworkers or administrators for a disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other factor.  

As a consequence of all of these workplace and classroom factors, the 2015 survey found that 34 percent of teachers cited a decline in their mental health (increased stressed, depression and emotional changes).

American Teachers Are Still Struggling – Two Years Later
2017 Survey by the American Federation of Teachers – Follow Up Summary

Two years after the 2015 survey, researchers reevaluated for an updated summary report. This time, instead of 34 percent, a total of 58 percent of teachers reported a decline in mental health.

Another 2017 study from University of Missouri professor Keith Herman found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers report experiencing a high-stress level.

The health effects of being a teacher are not limited to high stress levels, depression and anxiety. Many educators have forms of insomnia, secondary traumatic stress or even post-traumatic stress disorder, explains one Yahoo Lifestyle article.

Some teachers echoed these emotionally taxing feelings and discouraging sentiments to Yahoo.

“If you're killing yourself 10 hours a day and nothing is right and [students are] not succeeding, there's just no fulfillment,” one teacher named Beth said. For her, the pressure came largely from the school administration mandating daily faculty meetings and increased teacher scrutiny to raise the state test scores. It was enough to lead to her suicidal ideation.

“The thoughts that I had this time were that it would just be so easy to drive off the road,” Beth says. While she says there was no plan to actually do so, “it was just there in the back of my mind that it would be so much easier if I wasn't here.”

An English Report is Less Concerning – but Incomplete
2018 Research by the UCL Institute of Education

Jerrim’s 2018 research does open up the general conversation about teacher wellbeing. It is specific to England, however, and it notes its need for further research. Nonetheless, it is worth noting.

This study that spanned over 25 years of research found that while teacher happiness and satisfaction has remained somewhat stable (in England) during that time period, there are other factors to consider. For example, there is a chance that within the last few years, teachers have been more willing and open to talking about their mental health than before.

The Nuffield Foundation-funded research looked at data from more than 20,000 teachers and education professionals collected between 1992 and 2018. The study did not note change in the number of teaching staff reporting unhappiness, anxiety, or feelings of low worth over the past decade.

As researchers said, this might have something to do with teachers feeling more open to reporting mental health issues over other professions.

While this study suggested the teachers are pretty stable in their mental health, it acknowledges its faults: lack of attention to teacher workload and lack of consideration of other factors such as reporting rates and low teacher retention rates. The research paper continues to suggest that existing data collections need to be enhanced, and researchers need to continue to pursue new links between education and health administrative records.

“The results from our study may therefore not be as worrying as they first seem, if it means more teachers who are struggling with their mental health are now getting help. However, more needs to done to monitor and improve the mental health and wellbeing of the teaching profession – similar to the commitment that has been made to track teachers’ workloads over time,” said Jerrim.

What Now?
This is all heavy, and complicated. It’s both political and personal. While a tremendous amount of research needs to be done to study teachers’ workloads, stress factors, retention rates, and more, the general issue is slowly coming to light. Teachers need emotional support, mental health resources, and healthy relationships with administrators and school boards. As we know, it might be a matter of life and death.

The 2017 follow up report reminds us why educator stress and mental health matters: “educator working conditions have a direct effect on the learning environment of our students.” Healthy teachers that feel encouraged and empowered can better do their jobs. Mental health is a reality for not just students, but the very people who support and teach them: their educators.

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