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How are teachers managing their mental health?

Concerned teacher goes over a report while sitting at his desk

It’s been an impossible few years for everybody, but especially people who work with kids. Teachers have been quitting in droves, and those who’ve stayed are facing new challenges: pandemic trauma, spikes in gun violence, and deeply anxious parents, to name just a few.

As school starts up again, asked longtime educator and psychologist Ronnie Cunningham, PhD, to share his insights on how teachers are minding their own mental health at this complicated time. From your point of view as a psychologist and an educator, how are teachers feeling as they head back to school this year?

Ronnie Cunningham: They are feeling a lot of emotions, because like the rest of us, they’ve been through so much. The uncertainty around all that’s changed over the last two-and-a-half years has made figuring out how to adjust and get ready for a new year really hard.

From what I understand, a lot depends on the school district and schools teachers are going back to, if they’re going back at all. While there is excitement about getting “back to normal,” there’s also stress about getting kids caught up academically after the online debacle we all went through, as well as worries about whether teachers will have the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.

In addition, they’re thinking about how to keep students physically and emotionally safe in the face of potential gun violence, viruses like COVID and monkeypox, and the myriad challenges they deal with on a daily basis.

It’s been widely reported that kids’ and teens’ mental health has suffered during the pandemic.1, 2 Now more than ever, teachers are on the front lines of supporting students who are struggling. Is enough attention being paid to how this impacts the mental health of teachers themselves? Have additional resources been put in place for them?

Teachers have 100% been on the front lines of supporting children academically, emotionally, and socially. They had to figure out on the fly how to go from teaching totally online to hybrid models, and then back to in-person. This has been so difficult for them on so many levels.

The support teachers are given varies depending on where they are—and while there may be more awareness about the stress teachers experience, I’m not sure that has led to more universal mental health support for them. This may be because some school systems have become so burdened with the challenges we’ve seen over the last few years that teachers have gotten left behind from the standpoint of systemically supporting their mental health, and that’s unfortunate.

From teachers I’ve talked to, there has never been counseling support put in place for them before, during, or after the pandemic, so they are largely on their own.

How are teachers feeling about new measures intended to increase safety, like active shooter drills, security guards, and metal detectors at schools? Do these practices generally help them feel safer or increase their anxiety?

Great question—and again, I think this depends on where the teacher works. One teacher I talked to in a large urban school district said her school had addressed no safety or policy measures yet because their entire administrative staff had yet to be hired, even though they were returning to work the next week. As a result, no one was fully aware of where or how such decisions would be made. And, as you could guess, no one was feeling particularly safe.

My guess is that individual schools and their staffs will have to be very creative and intentional about coordinating safety responses, whatever they may be. That said, I also believe that as school systems work to develop comprehensive safety plans and implement them, it will help reduce anxiety in the long run.

In your therapy practice, you have clients who are teachers, parents, and students. Have you seen a shift in the kinds of mental health concerns each group is bringing to you around school? What’s changed over the past couple of years? Are more teachers going to therapy?

In my practice, I’ve seen quite a shift in the types and intensity of emotional difficulties experienced by people who seek help. This includes people struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation, and a general sense of uncertainty about what will happen next in their lives.

Before the pandemic, I had been seeing kids’ and teens’ use of screens and social media impact their well-being, and the last two years seem to have made that worse. Two themes that have stood out for the young college-age students I work with include the deep negative impact of their sense of isolation during the lockdown, and their hopelessness about their futures, given the state of the world and its problems (social unrest, disasters due to climate change, political violence, the cost of education, etc.).

The parents I see tend to worry about the academic losses their kids have experienced, the extreme isolation their children endured, and the shift back to whatever the new normal is going to be. As a result, parents feel a lot of uncertainty.

As far as whether teachers are seeking more therapy, I believe everyone is, and that’s a good thing.

Therapy can be a huge help, but it’s not accessible or affordable for everyone. For teachers who may not be able to work directly with a therapist, are there any self-care practices you recommend? (Such as meditation, breathing exercises, worksheets, journaling, online resources, virtual support groups, and so on.)

The short answer to this question is yes to everything you said. There is a lack of mental health services available in general, even for those who have the resources to attain them. Every mental health worker I know is busier now than ever, so people have to be really motivated and get creative about getting help. To me, this means learning to do self-care (exercise, sleep, healthy eating and drinking habits, etc.), having people to talk to about what you’re experiencing, and just taking as much care as possible to reestablish a sense of normality in our daily routines.

We also need to recognize, acknowledge, and accept just how stressful and painful the last two-and-a-half years have been so we can identify the problems they’ve created and begin to address and solve them.

The past few years have also seen a diversification of how mental health and other services are delivered to people—namely through online resources, which have opened up support for people who may not otherwise have gotten it. In my case, I see up to 40% of my clients online, and that was not the case prior to the pandemic.

If we may ask a more personal question: In addition to being a psychologist, an educator, and a coach, you’re also a parent and a Black man living in America. How do all those perspectives intersect for you in caring for your own mental health at this moment?

There’s not enough time in this interview for me to fully answer this question, because you’re right! Those perspectives inform my practice and personal life and have direct and indirect impacts on my own mental health and well-being. I do my best to practice what I teach, and while I do come up short at times, I try to remember that life isn’t about never falling down as much as it’s about learning to pick yourself up after you do.

This means doing my own forms of self-care, seeking personal and professional help when needed, and learning to listen to my body and mind with empathy and a little wisdom. By no means am I 100%, but I am working on it.

About the author

Ronnie Cunningham, PhD, is a licensed psychologist who has worked for more than 20 years as a teacher, coach, psychologist, and faculty member in educational settings from elementary school to university. For the past eight years, he has served as a core faculty member and director of internships for EdS students at the University of Washington College of Education. He also spent 10 years at educational nonprofit Rainier Scholars as their lead mental health professional and psychologist. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in school and educational psychology from the University of Washington.

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