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Why Teachers' Mental Health Is at Risk

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I am starting to lose track of how many education professionals I know who are fighting mental illness. Perhaps “fighting” is not the word, because some of us have come to either accept or embrace it; regardless, the number of people to whom I speak about it is staggering.

Thinking about this, I posted on Facebook looking for input on how mental illness affects people working in education and contributors shared a lot of emotionally heavy stuff.

When I asked if I could share anonymously, they all agreed. One friend in Special Ed shared, “I have struggled with depression since starting to teach 15 years ago. Even though I take medication which certainly does help, I do know that I continue to struggle with the symptoms on a daily basis most of the time due to the position I hold, students I work with and the demands placed on me. I have found there are days where I am overwhelmed and honestly do not want to go to work, but I am able to push myself and do it and generally do feel better once I start my day. I feel like administration lacks awareness of the demands that are placed on the staff and in turn does not care how their mental health is affected by those demands. I continue to work on a healthy home/work balance and use a variety of therapeutic techniques to manage my symptoms.”

Another friend who also works in Special Ed experienced some extreme issues. “I struggled with extreme anxiety my first year teaching from an unsupportive administration. I also experienced exhaustion and hypertension due to a large workload. I was removed from the classroom several times and taken to the local hospital by ambulance.”

When my best friend shared my wonderings, a friend of hers in Special Ed also replied. “I have anxiety and depression. I have it mostly under control with meds and therapy, but some days I have a hard time getting up in the morning and struggle with having the energy to take a shower, brush my teeth, etc. I am extremely sensitive to criticism and think one mistake will get me fired. I have trouble concentrating and sometimes daze off in a fog if I am trying to focus on one task for a long period. I’ve learned there is nothing wrong with taking breaks, but I still feel guilty when taking them or feel like my co-workers judge my every move.”

A second friend of hers shared, “I have generalized anxiety and depression that kind of comes and goes in severity. I have experienced anxiety since I was a child and depression since college. I have worked in special education for 15 years. I have always used all of my sick time (and sometimes even unpaid days) every year. I would say 25 percent would be to actual illness and 75 percent would be mental health days.”

While Special Ed is acknowledged as an extremely stressful teaching assignment, education professionals with mental health issues work from elementary to middle, middle to high, even in higher education; it’s everywhere from the school library to classrooms of any discipline. One friend experienced such harassment from her elementary school principal that she ended up in therapy to treat the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Another friend in a high school setting related, “[I struggled with] Clinical depression … I used to lie at night, looking at the clock, dreading even having to get to up to go to school. Used to debate if I should take a sick day. At school anxiety, whether I would get a shitty coverage or break up a fight. Dealing with adults who had awesome classes because they can’t handle the ‘bad’ ones, but you can, was a backhanded compliment and made things worse.”

Another has an anxiety disorder: “At least for me, it makes you feel like you are trapped in a place and you can’t get out. I used to get panic attacks and I think the worst feeling would be having to try to pull myself together, because the last thing you want is for your students to see you at your low. As educators, I feel as though we are required to be strong for our students and sometimes when anxiety takes over your body, the last thing you want is for your students to see.”

One who taught with me in my building, but went to an “easier” school district later, didn’t find any ease in her new setting. “I had a rough patch for several years before I left teaching. I would randomly go into panic attacks, get sick and miss several days of work. I actually ran out of sick time. My family life was also affected as a result. I wasn’t able to do what I knew I was capable of in the classroom. The students were affected. I felt I was always under scrutiny.” Life was complicated outside of the classroom for her as well, and after a family tragedy, the stress culminated in a nervous breakdown and a three-year hiatus from teaching.

Looking at these educators whose lives are affected, a small fraction of those I know, I started to wonder just how many people in education overall deal with some sort of mental health issue, whether anxiety, depression, bipolar, etc. When I sat down to research this, I found it was hard to find information through something like a simple search. I Googled, because isn’t that where everyone starts? In doing so, I saw that the articles mainly focused on educators recognizing mental health issues in students and the lack of training we have to do so. There were two hits on the first page that yielded something about educators themselves being affected.

Inside Higher Ed offered a story about a professor dealing with anxiety caused by an adjustment disorder, a type of mood disorder. This professor initiated the use of coping mechanisms and took a leave of absence to get to a point where they were comfortable in their career, but they worried about coming out of the mental health closet due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. The second piece in Psychology Today addressed why teachers experience emotional burnout and how it may be able to be prevented or at least decreased in severity. (It also had a comment from someone in the corporate world berating teachers for thinking they have any idea what stress is like, but do not get me started on that.) Nevertheless, neither of these pieces gave me any answers to my question of how many educational professionals are dealing with a mental health issue.

I know my ins and outs in how I deal with my illness on the day to day, and I know how many of my peers deal. I know what triggers and exacerbates issues due to my condition, and many of the triggers and difficulties experienced by my colleagues. I know what can help to lessen a bad day or a breakdown. What I want are numbers, hard and true, to show the world just how many of us in education go about the daily task of educating children and adults while struggling with our own minds. I feel like there is always strength in numbers and knowing how not alone I am, how not alone we are, would help me to feel supported. My tiny little microcosm just is not enough, because I know there must be more of us out there. I also feel like the public may respond better to factual data — logos, as I tell my students, is a powerful persuasive appeal, as opposed to conjecture or small scale anecdotal evidence.

So I kept on searching.

It seems I have peers in a significant amount of England. An article from TES states that roughly 8 in 10 teachers are struggling with mental health issues. “Eighty-four percent of teachers have suffered from mental-health problems at some point over the last two years, the survey of 2,000 teachers reveal.” Scotland, too, is experiencing a bit of a mental health crisis in their school staff; according to another study, “Some 45 percent [of surveyed teachers] said that their mental health was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor,’ and 15 percent reported taking medication because of the stresses of their work.” While these are both relatively current, written in 2016 and 2017 respectively, the British Medical Journal was publishing studies about this very topic in 1978. It seems to me that Great Britain is well ahead of the United States in determining how many of its educators are experiencing a mental illness.

I guess my issue now is to find a means of surveying teachers in the United States about their own mental health struggles and then using the results to come up with some sort of means of addressing what may very well be a mental health crisis in the world of educational professionals. What I know I absolutely cannot do is sit idly by while my profession loses some of its most caring and concerned educators to struggling in silence.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the educators quoted.

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Thinkstock photo via coscaron

Originally published: May 19, 2017
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