OPINION: Teachers and students are not okay right now. More mental health training would help

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When I was in elementary school, students who exhibited anxiety were given a smattering of separation as teachers prompted them down the school hallway to the nurse’s office, where they were isolated from their peers. There wasn’t a lot the nurse could do — offer a phone call home, a sticker, a reminder to breathe.

I related to this experience as a high school student after losing my father to breast cancer. Grappling with grief, I too was pulled aside for whispered conversations in the hallway, the kind of heartfelt but harried condolences made by teachers who didn’t know what to say.

In those moments, I felt different. And acutely aware of the adults’ discomfort.

It’s no secret that youth mental health is in crisis. Teachers aren’t okay either. Educators experience substantially higher rates of depression than the overall population. Nearly 50 percent leave the classroom within five years. Teaching is considered as stressful as working as an emergency room doctor.

Related: Mental health: Is that a job for schools?

The stakes are high: two-thirds of children in the U.S. are impacted by trauma, which can alter brain connectivity, function and structure — and physical and mental health into adulthood. In 2020, almost eight million children had diagnoses of anxiety and depression, and in 2021, three in five female-identifying high school students in the United States reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.”

Yet, too often, educators don’t receive any training regarding mental health — young people’s or their own — during college. To truly buoy well-being in the learning space, it’s time to fill this gap.

Of course, mental health support should involve trained interventionists; we shouldn’t position teachers as such. Yet access to mental health staff is scarce; school counselors balance an average caseload of 408 students and are often overloaded with administrative responsibilities that leave little room for mental health support. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. districts lack a school psychologist altogether.

Educators experience substantially higher rates of depression than the overall population.

This leaves teachers on the frontlines, which may be even more of a problem than we thought: Researchers have uncovered a reciprocal relationship between student and teacher well-being: A contributing factor to teacher stress can be exposure to student hardships, which can lead to secondary trauma, or “compassion fatigue,” which mirrors PTSD.

Similarly, the phenomenon of “stress contagion” shows that students in classrooms where teachers self-report high levels of burnout wake up with elevated cortisol, a key stress hormone that can impact development. Studies also show that teachers serve as attachment figures in the lives of young people, meaning that the ways teachers respond to and connect with students, especially in times of stress, can impact both how students relate to others as well as how they expect to be treated by others across time. This means that teachers’ stressors may impair their ability to build supportive relationships with students, complicating students’ own experiences of, and expectations for, attachment.

Related: A surprising remedy for teens in mental health crises

There is, then, an urgent need for teachers to know how best to respond to their own and others’ challenges and to model productive coping strategies that can serve students in the long term.

President Biden proposed $1 billion in federal funding to hire mental health professionals and institute suicide prevention programs in schools, but teacher training has yet to be addressed.

The Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Preparation requires that teacher education programs cover diversity, equity and inclusion — but not mental health, despite the topics’ interconnectedness. Youth from marginalized backgrounds are at increased risk for mental health challenges, for example, and marginalized communities have less access to, and are less likely to elect to access, mental health care due to systemic inequity and stigma.

To address this, teachers need training in mental health as well as in diversity, equity and inclusion issues. Incorporating basic awareness into teacher training of anxiety, depression and trauma is important, as is instruction on ways of talking about mental health with young people and strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for the classroom. This will equip teachers with tools to identify and respond to students when they most need help and connect them with additional support.

Better understanding about vicarious trauma and its warning signs, along with guidance on intervention, will also prepare teachers to enter their careers with increased self-awareness and the ability to name and destigmatize a part of the profession that is dominant, yet rarely identified.

Pilot programs addressing the mental health of teachers have shown promising results. For example, districts that paid for teachers to receive therapy reported that “none of [the teachers] quit until they felt emotionally well. Of the teachers that provided feedback, 100 percent reported an improvement in personal well-being . . . [and] that the experience positively impacted their students’ well-being, mental health, and academic performance.”

This idea of therapist-teacher support echoes the supervision model in psychological training in which novice therapists meet regularly with experienced therapists to process the emotional toll of their work and discuss professional strategies and approaches.

While some schools have instituted mentoring programs for first-year teachers, the model is not used everywhere, typically doesn’t address emotions and its one-year duration is often insufficient.

We need a new ethic of training in education that gives teachers tools for sustaining themselves and their students in times of stress. That includes making sure they understand the tenets of trauma-informed care — safety, connection and emotional regulation — and how to center those tenets to help care for themselves and their students.

Adult well-being matters both before and during professional practice, as does recognizing the direct relationship between the emotional states of teachers and their students. If we mandate mental health training, we can make school a safer place for students and teachers — a place where grief, anxiety and stress are not relegated to whispers in the hallway but instead leveraged as powerful moments for learning, connection and support.

Brittany R. Collins is the author of “Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students,” as well as over 50 articles on mental health and education. Learn more about her work at www.brittanyrcollins.com or @griefresponsiveteaching on Instagram.

This story about teachers and mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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