The summer of 2004 I received a call from my best friend to pick him up from the hospital. He had been in the psychiatric unit for about a week for suicidal ideation. When I arrived he hugged me, had a smile on his face, and then wanted to show me around. I was surprised that I could come into where he was staying. I was introduced to a couple of staff members and a patient that he had gotten to know. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her blond hair, pale round face, rectangle glasses, and how exhausted she looked. Her slumped shoulders, dark circles under her eyes, and defeated posture has been stained in my mind ever since. And she was a teacher.
At the time, I wasn’t an educator. So, with my ignorance I remember thinking, “What is a teacher doing in the psychiatric unit for suicidal ideation during summer break? Shouldn’t she be enjoying her time off, relaxing, and traveling?” I shouldn’t have been so naive. I was married to a teacher and knew many others through my wife, so I was aware how stressful education could be and that teachers didn’t just forget about their students and the demands of their position during their break. Still, it came as somewhat of a shock that this person was suicidal.
On the drive back to my friend’s house that day he looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing with your life?” His question took me aback a little. Wasn’t I the one that just picked him up from the psych unit of a hospital? This was my friend though, more like a brother, and he could be very forthright. He also knew that I wasn’t content in my career choices at this point in my life. He continued, “You are good at helping people. You care about others. You should be a counselor or teacher.” I dropped my friend off and left without giving his words a lot of thought. At the time, my self-efficacy whispered constantly in my ear telling me I wasn’t bright enough or good enough, so becoming an educator or counselor was difficult to imagine. Then, about six-weeks later, my friend committed suicide.
I was seeing a therapist for about three years at that point, the same incredible human that I see today, and he told me that my mind and body were in emotional trauma. I was about to start a new job in human resources and had to put that on hold for a couple of weeks. My mind was completely swirling and I kept asking, “Why?” A question that will drive you to the brink of desperation because it will never be answered after someone close to you commits suicide.
I loved my friend. I miss him. He was incredibly intelligent and practical, and offered his wisdom to me over the years, which helped me grow. After his death, I started thinking about our drive home from the hospital that day, and the weeks after, and all the conversations that we had regarding my future. He continued to talk to me about becoming a teacher. So one day shortly after his death, while walking our new puppy, I told my wife I was going to go back to school to become a special education teacher. I enrolled in a program at a local college and the rest is history.
I think about my friend almost daily, and I often think about the teacher that I met when I picked him up from the hospital. Over the years, I have seen the toll that stress can bring to educators. I’m not saying that this particular woman was suicidal just because of her stress from teaching. I’m certain she had other troubles in her life. However, there is a reality in the field of education that depression and anxiety is very real and rising. Much of it is related to secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, along with the plethora of demands that are being continually placed on educators. I use the word educator because this isn’t solely about teachers. Administrators, social workers, counselors, para professionals, and others are also impacted.
I recently read an article that reported fifteen percent of teachers have had suicidal ideation. The rate of depression and anxiety is rising among educators, where more than half have reported a decline in their mental health. This is alarming! Over the years I have had educators come to me that are feeling burned out, in tears, frustrated, and losing hope. They feel like they cannot possibly keep up with the demands that are being placed on them and never feel their efforts are never good enough. Then, there is the reality that educators become emotionally fatigued dealing with student behaviors, trauma, and feeling responsible to help “fix” students. Again, this is not just teachers. I have seen administrators that struggle to take care of their mental health needs because their jobs have become ones that seem to go twenty-four hours a day.
I have witnessed many incredible educators leave the field and have done so because of their mental health. Education is in crisis right now because we are seeing educators leave and fewer coming into the field. Where there was once one hundred fifty applicants for a teaching position, there are now twenty. That might not be an exact number, but it’s an example of the reality that we now face in education. My greatest concern is that this mass exodus from education will, and probably has, affected students. This trend needs to stop.
Someone recently asked me if I liked being a teacher. I replied with, “I love it. It’s one of the best things that I have ever done with my life.” I continued talking about how the highlight of my career was being a Dean of Students. I mention this because I have been both a teacher and administrator, so I understand the burnout from both perspectives. As a Dean, my mental health declined rapidly by my third year. I approached my position as a student advocate rather than a disciplinarian. I knew that I needed to create strong relationships with students in order to better serve them, especially when they were in crisis. I tried to take a restorative approach, along with fair consequences when it came to discipline and I never stopped looking out for their best interest. However, I often felt like I was climbing up a muddy hill with worn out shoes. For every step that I took to improve climate within the building, I fell several steps back. There were several reasons for this that I would rather not focus on, but it took its toll on my mental health. My anxiety grew to the point where I had several panic attacks daily and often thought I was literally dying. This didn’t stop the work I was doing with students. I knew it was too important to be there for the kids, but the secondary trauma continued to increase. I became worn out by the issues that students brought to school. A small list included: homelessness, abuse, drugs, anxiety, depression, fights, unreasonable parent expectations, social media bullying and harassment, suicidal ideation, divorce, and the list goes on and on. When you are an educator who takes the time to do the important part of your job, which is building strong connections with students, you will hear and see all that they have to deal with in their lives. And with all of this, you are still expected to plan your lessons, set your teacher effectiveness goals, coach, facilitate extra-curriculars, navigate parent concerns, and so much more. Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed? When you bring students into a building with all of their mental health concerns and combine that with educators who are also struggling with their mental health, something’s got to give.
I’m writing this for all of my fellow educators with the simple mission of bringing awareness. I care about them and their wellbeing, and I care about every student that walks through our schoolhouse doors. When I see the dire statistics surrounding the mental health of educators I think we all need to take notice because the education of our young people is the foundation of our society. Our work is extremely important and young lives depend on it, but there has to be a better way.
I certainly do not have all the answers, but I can suggest a few things. Educators need to speak freely, without judgement, about their mental health. The stigmas need to be extinguished and we need to be okay with saying that our chosen field is causing much of our increase in depression and anxiety. Educators need to build strong relationships with students and continue to help them, knowing that sometimes just being there is enough and that you are doing everything you can. We have our kids for a short amount of time five days per week and cannot possibly undo every trauma in their lives. This is a hard reality. You are enough! We also need to be allowed to slow down and focus on quality, not quantity. Hopefully, this would decrease the hours of after school planning and the pressures of getting through so much material, which in return may offer more time for educators to focus on their own mental health. We need compassionate, empathetic leaders that are here to serve. In return, we need teachers that also understand that administrators are facing incredible obstacles on an hourly basis in a thankless position. After all, we are all in this together, with mutual passion, to help kids become their best selves. We’re on the same team. Mostly, I think we need to bring awareness about the signs of mental illness to educators. This will help them understand the symptoms and then build the coping skills necessary to build resilience, so they can continue to show up everyday and have an impact on the young people that are before them. There are many more things that schools could do to support mental health with teachers and I will list a few without getting into detail: Hold students accountable for their behaviors because a large part of teacher’s stress is the verbal and sometimes physical abuse that they endure, bring mindfulness to schools and allow time for the practice, inform teachers about detachment strategies (examples:yoga, exercise, reading) and allow time for them to make those strategies a part of their life, reduce initiatives and allowing time to do less better. This is not a complete list but a good start.
Years ago, I listened to my friend’s words, “You should become a teacher,” and I never stopped listening. I am a teacher, an educator, a mentor, and a compassionate leader. I do care about my fellow educators and I love my students, even the ones I have not met, and that is why I bring you these words today. I am concerned about a profession in crisis. A profession that I tell young people to enter because even with all of the stress and secondary trauma that you will inevitably feel at some point, there is nothing like seeing a student stand in front of you telling you that you made a difference in their lives. I have always said, my students have had more of an impact on me than I will ever have on them.