Teacher Mental Health is an area that receives only sporadic attention from the press, teacher’s unions and government departments of education in most countries. In University Teacher Education Programmes it receives even less attention, with most newly-qualified teachers entering the classroom with little understanding of the pressures of teaching and few strategies to monitor and maintain their mental health. Similarly, many resilient, long-service teachers are afforded little support by school administrators and survive in the teaching profession because of their own ability to manage their condition. That is quite a burden to bear.
In the UK, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) recently reported that more than 38% of educators noticed a rise in mental health problems among colleagues in the past two years. 55% stated that their job had a negative impact on their mental health. The NASUWT found that 86% of teachers experienced increased workplace stress in the past year with 87% believing that this stress had negatively impacted their mental health. This pattern holds up in Ireland also. According to an INTO study on teacher workload and stress, 87.9% of teachers said that teaching had become more or much more stressful in the past five years, 93.4% found that teaching had become more or much more “demanding”, 88.2% found it more or much more “challenging” and 91.5% found it more or much more “hectic”. Interestingly the INTO study identified “making provision for individual difference” (93.8%), “requirements for documentation relating to policies and practices” (96%) and the “demand on school to solve the problems of concern in society” (91.3%) as the issues that make teaching more or much more challenging. When asked how to make teaching more satisfying and less stressful, 93.4% of teachers identified “recognising the importance of teachers’ wellbeing for pupils’ success and wellbeing” as the most important contributing factor, putting it before salary increases, before a reduction in curriculum overload, extra responsibilities and other important factors that relate to stress. In other words, it is essential that schools are places that recognise the importance of teacher mental health and provide practical strategies to alleviate the burden placed upon the mental wellbeing of their teachers. So is this currently the case? Sadly it seems not to be.
The ATL report indicates that 68% of educators who suffer from a mental health condition choose to hide it from their employer. This silence surrounding mental health among teachers appears to tally exactly (68%) with the correspondents to my survey who stated that they would not feel comfortable speaking about their condition with their employer.
Michael (not real name) is an Irish second level teacher. He suffers from depression and worries about how it may affect him in his career in the future. While early in his career, he has taught in both Ireland and the USA and would not feel comfortable speaking about his condition to administration. “No one wants to appear vulnerable to their employers, especially if you are a new teacher or just starting off in your career. I think the onus should be on admin to be more empathetic with their employees.”
Vulnerability was a key theme among those who would not speak to administration. Jerry (not real name), a long-service elementary school teacher from Maryland, USA also points to this issue. Prior to teaching “I suffered a major depressive episode that morphed into an unknown mental health problem. It was OCD but contained elements of other major illnesses. The worst is over, I pray. It was isolating and it still is, so there is difficulty with people. If I ever relapsed I would probably be out of work. It is too stressful to have forgotten by dinnertime what I discussed at lunch.” Explaining why he would not approach administration with his condition, Jerry emphasises the absence of trust between staff and administration as the result of functional rather than personal relationships. “If my admin hardly speaks to me all year, why would I want to share personal details? If admin comes to me only to take my learning tools (chairs, tables, etc.) then why would I trust them? There’s still, seemingly, a stigma and I don’t want to jeopardise my career.”
Maria (not real name), a mid-career elementary learning support teacher from Poland, suffers from depression and she explains what the stigma of mental health feels like in the workplace. “We don't talk about it to admin because mental issues still don't belong to the same category as other health issues. We'd rather keep them to ourselves and avoid being gossiped about. We simply don't want the "issue" to have a negative impact on our career. We want to have the same chances as other colleagues.”
Maria did, when she felt that she could no longer do her job effectively, speak to her employers. “I was desperate and my situation kind of forced me to speak to admin (I had to give up my class all of a sudden). I felt I had to get rid of this burden and say what was going on. I spoke to my principal and she knew exactly how I felt. She had had a similar experience in her past. And you know what? She actually didn't tell anyone. When the same situation happened again I knew it was too much for me.” Maria left teaching after a second major depressive episode at the school. So even though Maria eventually spoke to her employers about her condition, it was only when it was too late to prevent her leaving the profession.
Jenny (not real name), an English teacher from the USA and currently working in Latin America, is similarly thinking about speaking with her administration but only after a sustained period of stress and survival through the use of excellent self-taught emotional management strategies: “I was first diagnosed with depression in my senior year of high school; I'm in my thirties now. The depression never goes away but sometimes it is controlled well by medication and sometimes it 'flares up', just like any other chronic illness. Worsening depression, for me, makes my brain feel fuzzy. I have trouble thinking through processes, remembering what comes next, reading others' emotions and concentrating. Teachers face an expectation that we will take our work home, be available for night and weekend events, and even communicate with parents or students during the evenings. It's debatable whether that is a reasonable expectation for anyone, but when my depression starts to flare up, it's impossible. I have to draw a harder boundary around my personal time, even if that means the grades are entered late or some tasks just don't get done. As a new teacher, I didn't want to be seen as unwilling to do my part, so I worked myself to exhaustion. Now, though, as I'm struggling to keep up with those unwritten expectations, I'm considering bringing my mental health into the conversation with administration, just so that I'm not interpreted as being selfish or lazy. I have a good relationship with admin and I think they see how hard I work and how passionate I am for our work. But I'm also really struggling this year, though they've been really gracious. The thing I'm most worried about is that mental illness is not well understood here, so it might do more harm than good to explain it in those terms. I might leave the medical terms out of it and just say I need to slow down so I don't burn out. I haven't made those decisions yet.”
Jenny’s concern about full disclosure is echoed by Martha (not real name), an experienced second level teacher from Ireland, currently on a years’ sabbatical, who recounted one sad instance from her school. “I can recall a female second level teacher in her early fifties telling me last year that she had recently taken certified sick leave for a week from her school due to personal stress related to family problems. She said that there was no way she wanted her principal to know she was stressed because it might reflect negatively on her as a professional. Therefore, her doctor indicated on the medical certificate that she had a viral illness.”
It was a common fear among those who would not speak to administration that doing so could cost them their career. They feared that there is a stigma or a falsely-held perception among non-sufferers that a mental health diagnosis automatically means unfitness for work. Martha explains this fear. “Teachers struggling with their mental health are unlikely to confide in senior management. I believe there is a fear among Irish teachers that a personal disclosure concerning a weakness in their mental health may result in a negative judgement being made about them as professionals in the first instance. Consequently, the shame associated with a possible negative judgement paralyses certain Irish teachers into inaction with regard to confiding in a member of senior management about their mental ill-health. Further, I think there is a fear among Irish teachers generally that having a record of any form of mental ill-health known to management may jeopardise their chances of securing a promotional position in their schools in the future. And if a teacher has a record of mental ill-health and is unsuccessful in securing a promotion through a competitive process in his school, he will never be able to establish whether his mental health record was key in determining the outcome or not.”
One educator who responded to the results of my survey seemed to confirm that Martha and Jenny’s deeply-held fear of misconceptions surrounding mental ill-health are very real.
To return to the INTO survey, 93.4% of surveyed teachers indicated that “recognising the importance of teachers’ wellbeing for pupils’ success and wellbeing” is the most important way to make teaching more satisfying and less stressful. This was a sentiment echoed by those educators I spoke with also. Michael, the Irish teacher, stated, “It is not the admin you should be worried to talk to about your mental health; it is your students. I think we need to have that conversation as well because you, the teacher, can't be seen to be vulnerable to them.” Jerry, who identified the relationship between staff and administration as being key to allowing teachers to speak openly about their mental health added, “We're so busy focusing on being productive, serving students, etc. that there seems to be little time to build our connections and with it the fabric that supports each other when times get tough. There is then less resilience and there's less ability to serve students when they need it.” Speaking openly about mental health serves not only to allow teachers and administrators to better manage stress but it also models responsible choices and hope for a stable and successful career for students who are similarly struggling.
Jack (not real name), an early career second level teacher in Minnesota, USA, suffers from depression and anxiety. After much consideration, he made the decision to speak to administration about his health. Here is his reason for doing so. “I could see myself in so many students as they sat in my class or walked through the halls. It dawned on me that sharing my story could make a difference for some of those students. I felt I was stable enough with my mental health that sharing the experience would be beneficial not just for those listening, but also for me. The major roadblock standing in the way was how this could affect others’ view of me as a professional…I am blessed to have had two principals that trusted and respected me as an educator and an equal within the school. Due to this strong commitment to each other as professionals, going to my principal was not a difficult decision. Don’t get me wrong, I was nervous. Telling your boss you once considered suicide isn’t easy…Sharing with my students was therapeutic for me. It convinced those who don’t experience mental health issues themselves to think about the impact they have on others. As the students reflected on the experience, many recognized that maybe they are not having as positive an influence on others as they would like.”
Jack’s case demonstrates the power that engaging positively with teacher mental health can have on shaping the culture of a school. However, Jack is currently in a minority among teachers who do suffer. The majority still suffer in silence and are likely only to reveal their burden when it is too late. Therefore it is essential that administrators take the first step in engaging those teachers. Here are some simple ways to begin this culture shift in your school:
- It is important that administrators identify the areas of greatest stress among their staff. This should be done anonymously at first by providing questionnaires to all teachers. Administrators should consider these findings alongside the above surveys as they develop a stress management strategy.
- Just as teachers are expected to develop strong relationships with their students, administrators must be visible, engaging and empathetic towards their staff in an attempt to forge strong personal relationships with every member of staff.
- Administrators should try to have at least two in-service days or staff meetings throughout the year dedicated to mental and physical wellbeing with a focus on providing teachers with practical coping strategies. I discuss some simple stress-reduction methods in this blog.
- Teaching is still by and large an isolated profession. Many teachers can go to work, close their classroom door and have little or no contact with administration or colleagues throughout the day. Administration should develop strategies to combat staff withdrawal and isolation. In this blog I provide simple steps to promote staff collaboration.
- It is important for administrators to create a long-term mental health and wellbeing strategy in their school. @DebbieDonsky and @mcassidy905 work for the York Regional District School Board in Ontario, Canada, and have helped to implement a useful strategy for schools in this district. The programme is based on four action points:
- Building Knowledge and Capacity
- Developing Mentally Healthy Environments
- Reducing Stigma
- Creating Collaborative Care Pathways
While the programme is designed primarily with the mental health of students in mind Donsky has found that it has also been a useful model for maintaining staff wellbeing.
If you are an administrator and are interested in creating a staff mental health and wellbeing strategy for your school, I would recommend that you begin your planning process by making reference to the York Regional District School Board model here.