Can teaching affect mental health?

It’s no secret that teaching can be a stressful job. However, most people are unaware of the actual effects it can have on your health.
It’s no secret that teaching can be a stressful job. However, most people are unaware of the actual effects it can have on your health.
It’s no secret that teaching can be a stressful job. However, most people are unaware of the actual effects it can have on your health.

Dealing with kids 18 and under, their parents, the school board, co-workers and deadlines are stressors that can hit a teacher all at once. But are the mental health concerns of teachers killing the profession?

In 2007, a report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future found that 17 percent of teachers quit each year. In some school districts, the teacher dropout rate is higher than the student dropout rate.

In recent years, studies and research have been conducted assessing the cause of work-related illnesses and stress among teachers. John Illingworth, a former headteacher in the UK, experienced work-related mental illness and was forced to step down from his position. Since then, Illingworth has started a website called Teacher Mental Health that focuses on assessing illnesses that result from a teacher’s work environment.

On his website, he states that workplace bullying is one cause of stress among teachers — from students and co-workers. In fact, peer bullying is quite common among teaching staff.

Such was the case with Jennifer Lenihan, an art teacher at Bassett High in southern California. Lenihan was often shamed by Robert Reyes, principal of Bassett High, and Jimmy Lima, assistant principal, in front of coworkers and students. Reyes and Lima had already built a reputation of bullying teachers. Lenihan was assigned an unfamiliar classroom, a tactic often used by Reyes and Lima to confuse veteran teachers, and was told to either teach the class, or be fired. She eventually took stress leave and was paid only half her salary.

Lenihan’s request for disability was denied, and she was forced to take out a loan for living expenses. She was given two options: resign or apply for a waiting list for rehire. On July 1, 2013, she took her life.

While mental illnesses are rarely result in suicide, a small number of teachers take their lives every year because of work related depression. The number of suicides has increased significantly, especially for teachers who have been in the profession longer.

In recent years, students bullying teachers has become a serious problem, especially with the rise in social media popularity. Students have stolen pictures of teachers from cell phones or online profiles and posted doctored versions on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some students have even gone as far as to take pictures of teachers’ children and post them on pedophilic websites.

The cyber-bullying of teachers has gone so far that laws are being put in place to combat the issue. As of December 1, 2012, North Carolina became the first state to prohibit students from tormenting, intimidating or damaging the reputation of school employees.

Teachers have also reported being assaulted in the classrooms and the hallways of schools. They described being shoved in the hallway and verbally threatened by students. Last year, in the Charlotte Mecklenburg county alone, there were 382 reports of teachers being assaulted, physically and verbally, by students.

Coming from a much smaller high school, approximately 240 students total, I’ve personally witnessed teachers being bullied by co-workers, mainly the principal. The trailers in our school did not have fire alarms. So if there was a fire drill, the teachers in the trailer would have about a two or three minute delay. When they would finally get outside, the principal would completely flip out, in front of the entire school. Instead of fixing the problem by simply adding another bell in the trailers, the two teachers would just brace themselves for the inevitable embarrassment to come.

When my mother was in college, she originally wanted to be a teacher. When she finally got the chance to do actual job shadowing, she quit almost immediately, and changed her major to forensic psychology. Like most others in the profession, she says she simply couldn’t handle the constant stress of watching so many ill-behaved children and dealing with uptight, “holier-than-thou” parents.

A more obvious problem that teachers face is the behavioral problems of students. When my mother was attempting to teach, the students were simply written off as poorly behaved students with no home training. Now there is a need for teachers to be able to identify a multitude of illnesses or social disorders that their students may have.

In fact, following the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama called on teachers to help identify mental illnesses in their students. Teachers are now expected to differentiate between personality disorders and personality traits without offending or disrespecting the student.

Despite the focus on student’s health, significantly less attention is being put on the teachers’ health. The number of sick days taken by teachers is increasing significantly. In some school districts across the country, teachers are taking about 10 or more days off over the course of the year, with sickness being the most common excuse.

Laura Stevens, one my good friends from Yorkshire, is able to witness the effects of stress on teachers first hand. Paul Stevens, her father, is a civics teacher at a local school. “My father does seem really stressed a lot, but he loves teaching,” she says.

The Independent, a UK based news site, reported that half the country’s teachers suffered from mental illness due to the worsening behavior of students. The survey, conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, polled teachers from 300 secondary schools in the UK. The results showed that about 46 percent of them were either taking antidepressants or had received long lay-offs at the hands of their students.

Another study conducted in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan showed that about 61 percent of teachers had become ill because of stress. Of that 61 percent, 40 percent had taken time off due to stress. 51 percent of the teachers surveyed also said that if they found another career opportunity, they would leave the profession entirely.

In 2009, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation stated that  “stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological conditions are the leading causes of workplace absences.”

Recently, scientists have developed a new training method called “mindfulness training.” Mindfulness training is said to help teachers focus more on their present situations in a non-judgemental, or mindful, way.

Researchers trained 18 teachers to use Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques to control the physical sensations and thoughts that they may have while dealing with students. Participants found that the training could be used anywhere in situation. Some teachers have even started teaching their students how to use it. The course is now being taught in 12 countries.

I was also able to talk to Mrs. Whitley, an English teacher here at Leesville, about what Leesville does to help reduce teacher stress. Several teachers organize small get-togethers for teachers to meet, she told me, in the hopes that they won’t feel alone.  “As a teacher, there’s always something you could be doing,” said Whitley. “If I finish all of my grading, I can make my lesson plans for this week. When I finish my lesson plans for this week, I can be calling parents.” These small breaks give teachers a well-deserved break.

Of course, it’s going to take a lot more than mindfulness and get-togethers to help teachers overcome the stress of work. There are many different aspects and causes of depression that can’t always be evaded.

However, I don’t think that this is hurting current and future teachers. While we’ve all had at least one teacher that we didn’t particularly care for, there’s no doubting that they are committed to their jobs and to the success of their students. It’s going to take a combined effort from everyone involved in the profession, directly and indirectly, to help lighten the stress on teachers.


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