How do we support teachers' mental health?

Teachers must take care to not keep selflessly giving and learn to take care of their own emotional and physical needs

Teachers must take care to not keep selflessly giving and learn to take care of their own emotional and physical needs

Teaching may not be considered a typical high-pressure job, but there are few who would deny that it’s an undertaking that requires a special set of skills and extraordinarily high levels of patience, empathy and communication. For teachers and those whose careers are closely linked to the field of education, the extraordinary demands on one’s mental and emotional resources can often take their toll, and it might come as little surprise to those with experience in the profession — or those outside of it, who’ve said of teachers, “I don’t know how they do it” — that the stereotypical frayed nerves and patience worn thin are in fact the symptoms of a very real problem.

The statistics are alarming.
Figures from the Education Support Partnership’s 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index provide an insight into the depth and breadth of the problem in the UK’s context: 76% of education professionals surveyed report that they’ve experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work, compared with 60% of UK employees overall. The effects are tangible: 43% and 37% of education professionals’ symptoms could be signs of anxiety or depression respectively. More than half of the education professionals surveyed had considered leaving the sector over the previous two years as a result of health concerns.

Even if we were to put aside sympathy for the wellbeing of these individuals for their own sake, these figures would be alarming in any society in which good teachers are in short supply and education is crucial to the economy. Compromised health can lead to educator absenteeism that’s detrimental to learners on every level.

Considering the mental healthcare crises facing people around the world, it’s possible that the rates of anxiety and depression experienced by teachers aren’t elevated too far above the average for individuals in other professions, but that, of course, doesn’t make the situation acceptable. It could also be argued that mental health problems are of particular concern when they’re experienced by those responsible for the education — and, in part, the wellbeing — of children, perhaps amplifying the effects of their own affliction.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, one in five teenagers have considered self-harm, and 7.8% of these youths have taken action on these urges, highlighting the need for teachers to be very emotionally perceptive. With upsurges in anxiety and depression among children and teenagers, it’s crucial that teachers are able to understand, identify and address mental health issues in their roles, and to ease rather than exacerbate the concerns of others starts with an understanding of their own emotional needs.

For teachers, as is the case for all of those whose professions involve taxing interactions and a degree of self-sacrifice, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of giving relentlessly without stopping to take stock of one’s own emotional needs. In an age in which it’s increasingly difficult to disconnect from the classroom — consider class WhatsApp groups in which teachers often find themselves at the beck and call of concerned parents, with queries ranging from the practical to the intellectual and the emotional — it’s more important than ever to set and enforce boundaries.

For many, the term “self-care” is loaded with esoteric connotations, but whether prioritising oneself takes the form of guided meditation or time allocated to exercise, healthy eating and relaxation, it’s essential that teachers are allowed to understand that taking care of oneself is not selfish. When teachers are able to model these self-care practices to students, this has the added benefit of helping children understand from a young age that health doesn’t begin and end with fruit, vegetables, water and exercise. While mindfulness and mental health awareness are in fact being implemented for pupils in many schools, these programmes seldom target educators themselves. Educating teachers about practical ways in which to manage their own stress and distress could go a long way to creating more contented classrooms.

But self-care only goes so far, and the burden of mental healthcare shouldn’t fall entirely on teachers themselves. So, how do we support those in this undeniably vital profession? Support is needed at an institutional and government level, if not in the form of explicit healthcare interventions, then at least in working to alleviate the crushing pressure that’s placed on those in the teaching profession. It’s widely known that teachers’ salaries are sorely lacking, creating financial worries to add to everyday anxieties and the emotional pressure of managing the needs of often overfull classrooms.

National Teachers’ Day this year celebrated teachers with the theme, “Young Teachers: The future of the Profession” and commemorated the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education, and the dedicated target (SDG 4.c) recognising teachers as key to the achievement of the Education 2030 agenda, so it’s a good time to reflect on the challenges faced by those safeguarding the future of the profession.

Though it might sound simplistic, happy teachers are more effective, and teachers who are enabled to be effective are more fulfilled, and in turn happier.

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