Teachers Are Not Okay Right Now – Check On Their Mental Health

We’ve all seen the memes, “Check on your (fill in the blank) friends. We are not okay.” Well, check on your teacher friends. We are not okay. Pre-pandemic research on teacher mental health was bleak. In a study of 14 professional categories, 46% of teachers reported high levels of daily stress, tying them with nurses for the most stressed professionals. The American Federation of Teachers found 78% of teachers report physical and emotional exhaustion at the end of the day and 58% of teachers classify their mental health status as “not good.”

Now teachers are dealing with a pandemic, election year, social justice issues, distance learning, and more – on top of their normal overload of responsibilities. Teachers are suffering and many are reaching a breaking point. We spoke to three mental health professionals about how teachers can get help. 

Risk factors to teacher mental health

Julia McGrath, a Philadelphia mental health therapist at Aligned Life Therapy says, “Teachers face pressure at work from other faculty, principals, students, and parents. Teachers also put pressure on themselves to be excellent, often showing perfectionist traits. Perfectionism is a strategy to cope with the anxiety of overwhelming pressure.”

Psychologist Sarafina Arthur-Williams at Intentional Simplicity adds, “Educators were under a tremendous amount of pressure prior to COVID-19. Those same issues still exist and now they have even more to worry about. Educators are compounded with a variety of factors that contribute to stress and early burnout.”

Some of these risk factors include:

  • Large class sizes
  • Student behavior problems
  • Conflict from parents, administration, and other staff
  • Health and safety concerns
  • Heavy workloads and long hours 
  • Achievement and high-pressure testing
  • Vicariously feeling student trauma
  • Lack of recognition and praise
  • Lack of resources
  • Budget threats 
  • Not receiving adequate preparation and training 
  • Pressure of feeling responsible for students 

Signs of teacher mental health issues 

Sure, everyone feels tired and stressed at work sometimes. However, many teachers have levels of stress and exhaustion that are impacting their quality of life outside of the school day. Some symptoms to look for include:

  • Irritability
  • Exhaustion
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Lack of fulfillment in work
  • Feeling numb or emotionally checked out
  • Crying easily
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Increased anger
  • Frequent illness
  • Poor decision-making abilities 
  • Feeling isolated or alienated 
  • Having nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Loss of interest in activities or social interaction outside of work
  • Feeling dread about going to work

Therapy for teacher mental health

McGrath says, “Anyone can benefit from therapy, and teachers are no exception. Teachers can specifically benefit by using therapy as a place to explore and receive supportive feedback on how their work is impacting their health, and how to set realistic expectations with themselves.”

Benefits of therapy include:

  • Learning to set boundaries
  • Learning to create a work/home life balance
  • Developing self-care routines
  • Receiving permission to focus on yourself (and learning how to grant yourself that permission)
  • Exploring the roots of exhaustion, fear, doubt, insecurity, anxiety, etc. 
  • Learn new communication tools 
  • Understanding why others behave and how to not let it impact you

How can you seek help for mental health concerns?

Fortunately, most teachers have health insurance, which typically covers mental health treatment. Different options are available: you may want to start with a simple google search to find therapists in your area. Call a few of them for a free initial consult before making your selection. Teletherapy is also available and may feel like a good option for your busy lifestyle and with COVID-19 precautions. Sessions with a therapist can be conducted over the phone, text, or video chat. Talkspace and Better Help are two apps that offer teletherapy.

Speaking to your primary care physician is also a good starting point. Your doctor can help access your symptoms. They can evaluate the impact of stress on your physical health and recommend a treatment plan. Most doctors are able to make referrals to mental health professionals. 

It’s okay to not be okay.

Melissa Wesner, a licensed mental health counselor, says it’s important for teachers to know:

  • Many teachers seek counseling.
  • Seeking counseling can offer outside perspective and needed support.
  • Your health insurance likely includes mental health benefits.
  • Counseling can give you perspective from someone outside of your workplace.
  • Counseling can help you take care of yourself, so you can continue to do the type of work you want to do. 

Beyond therapy – What else can we do to protect teacher mental health?

McGrath offers several suggestions beyond therapy.

Supportive work environments are crucial. 

“Teachers are at greater risk in unsupportive environments, or in schools whose culture is competitive or sets unrealistic expectations. They can better navigate the pressure they face with social support from kind and understanding management, co-workers, and parents.”

Teachers can’t do it all. 

“Educators who work in schools lacking resources may find themselves being a counselor and social worker on top of their teaching responsibilities. They care deeply about their students and can take on more responsibility for their welfare than is realistically or humanly possible. This can have a big impact on mental health.”

Bringing work home takes away the ability to recharge. 

“Teachers who take their work home with them can lose out on rest and downtime needed to recharge for the next day.” It’s OK to leave work at work.

How everyone can support teacher mental health

McGrath says, “Teachers are experts in putting on a happy face. They are pros at setting their struggles aside in order to focus on the kids. I would encourage people who know and work with teachers to check in on them. Ask them how they are really doing. Many teachers suffer silently. Be genuine and offer to help them.”

Dr. Arthur-Williams explains making sure teachers are okay benefits students, too. “If our educators are burned out, they are more likely to have unhealthy interactions with students. This is predictive of poor student mental health and academic outcomes.”

Teachers, your well-being matters. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to contact a doctor or therapist, start with a text. The Crisis Text Line is available 24/7 at no charge. Simply text HOME to 741-741. McGrath adds, “You don’t have to hold everything for everyone. Try to show yourself the same kindness and love you show your students.”


Teachers Are Not Okay Right Now - Check On Their Mental Health

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed., an editor at Bored Teachers, is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She's been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga. Connect with her at rachael.m@boredteachers.com
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