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The State of Mental Health in U.S. Educators

by Sean Hougan

I scrolled past a meme in my LinkedIn feed the other day. It was a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a semi-automatic from the 1984 movie, the Terminator. The caption above the meme read, “Teachers in 2023”. I was stunned. It poked light at the current situation in U.S. schools but it was also a little too soon. After putting myself in the shoes of a teacher, and contemplating their reality of violence and fear at work, I couldn’t help but become overwhelmed with emotion.

K-12 Educators arguably hold one of the most important professions in our societies and yet they are underpaid, undervalued and under-supported. Studies show that teachers also maintain one of the most stressful professions even when compared to doctors. Teachers hold our future astronauts, nurses, military, business professionals and delinquents in their hands and now, some may be expected to grasp onto a gun in one hand and a book in the other to simultaneously protect and educate our children. As an organization who is dedicated to supporting teachers and their mental health, I couldn’t help but wonder how teachers must be feeling now.

Mental Health in US Educators

Studies show that in 2018, 1 in 5 adults in American will struggle with their mental health. That’s over 43 million people in the U.S. who will report symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance abuse and/or suicidal ideation. In the U.S., there are 3.2 million full-time-equivalent (FTE) K-12 teachers. A 2017 educator work-life study surveyed teachers across the US and found that 1.86 million of these FTE teachers describe their mental health as “not good”.

A 2017 educator work-life study surveyed teachers across the US and found that 1.86 million FTE teachers describe their mental health as “not good”.

In this same survey, 61% of teachers reported that they were “always” or “often” dealing with high-stress over a 30-day period. To corroborate these findings, and to show how these stress levels have increased over the past 4 years, a 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 46% of teachers reported high-stress levels that year. A staggering 15% increase over a 3-year period. These findings are tied with nurses for the highest stress levels of any occupational group, and even higher than doctors.

Why Are More Educators Struggling with Mental Health?

We don’t need to look far to learn about the stress teachers face on a daily basis. It’s being broadcasted throughout every media outlet and citizens are crying out for help. Growing economic disparity, declining mental health in students, dwindling classroom resources and complicated class compositions are a few that you may have thought about. A report published by PennState University tells a similar story wherein the four main sources of stress for teachers are the:

  • Environmental Climate: Many teachers work in physical environments that lack strong leadership, healthy school cultures, and supportive relationships with colleagues. Research shows that when educators work in environments with strong principal leadership and collaborative collegial support, teachers will report higher job satisfaction and new teachers will stay in the profession longer.
  • Increasing Job Demands & Dwindling Autonomy: Increasing Job Demands & Dwindling Autonomy: Educators are faced with high stakes district and state testing for their students. This increases the pace of their work and limits the autonomy they have over teaching material. Occupational studies show that teachers score the lowest in feeling that their opinions count at work wherein nearly 1 in 3 of teachers rated very low job autonomy in 2012. Moreover, students are similarly facing mental health issues which often results in increased difficulties managing behavioral problems in the classroom. Working with challenging parents, the increasing threat of teacher termination, teacher safety, and school closures are icing on the cake.
  • Limited Social and Emotional Competence: Educators are not equipped with necessary training or support to effectively manage the growing stressors in their profession and it’s impacting student outcomes. Studies show that when low social-emotional competence (SEC) is combined, instruction declines and in some cases impacts student wellbeing and achievement.


As educator mental health declines, so too does their physical health. Amongst high school teachers in the U.S., 46% are diagnosed with excessive sleepiness and 51% with poor sleep quality. Due to chronic stress and physical exhaustion, teachers commonly show biologically abnormal cortisol activity and overactive adrenal glands otherwise known as adrenal fatigue. Another common term for this is stress ‘burn out’.

What Are The Causal Effects of Declining Teacher Mental Health?

Beyond the declining emotional and physical well-being of our educators, there is also the effect on student performance and their well-being. The same report published by PennState University found that teacher mental health causes the following effects:

Poor teacher performance which is impacting student outcomes. Studies show that when teachers are highly stressed, children do not socially adjust as well and produce lower test scores than teachers who have supports to manage stressors. In a survey of over 78,000 students in 160 schools, high teacher engagement is correlated with higher levels of student engagement and better achievement.

High turnover, absenteeism, and an exodus out of the profession. There’s only so much stress a human can manage before one cracks or changes their situation. Researchers at PennState cross-examined three different studies and found that in the span of 20 years starting in 1988, 41% of teachers left the profession. Included in this number are teachers who have retired, but other studies suggest that between 23-42% of teachers will leave the profession in the first 5 years of their career given a combination of job stress, low autonomy, low pay, and low recognition.

Healthy Teachers = Healthy Classrooms = Healthy Student Outcomes

The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future found that high teacher turnover is impacting student performance and it’s also costing U.S. schools $7.3 billion in losses every year due to turnover. It’s disheartening to learn that since teacher turnover is higher in low-income neighborhoods, students at these schools are also more likely to underperform further creating destabilization in these communities.

High teacher turnover is impacting student performance and it’s also costing U.S. schools $7.3 billion in losses every year due to turnover.

While we may not be able to remove the stressors from the teaching profession, there is a lot that can be done at the individual and organizational levels to support teachers. We share some impressive results at the end of this article on how technology is being used to offer support at both the individual and organizational levels by offering online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills training and community support for teachers which can be accessed from the comfort of their homes. Currently, access is a large barrier to providing teachers with the mental health & wellness support they need.

Mental Health Support & Access for Teachers & Students

In 2017, 56% of American Adults who reported a mental health illness did not receive treatment and 1 in 5 reported an unmet need after seeking out help. While more Americans have access to healthcare services, there is still a gap. A study by Mental Health America found that even in Maine, a state with some of the best access to mental health care, 41.4% of adults did not receive treatment for their mental health. While this might partially be explained by the stigma around mental health, we do know that there is a shortage of mental health workers. Namely psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and psychiatric nurses. Even spanning these many different professions, there is still only 1 mental health worker to every 6 people who struggle with a mental illness.

The Solution: How Can Technology Bridge the Gap?

At Starling Minds we propose that technology can begin to fill these gaps. Our CEO & Founder, Dr. Andrew Miki, has worked with 200 North American teachers in the past 10 years at his private practice. Through CBT training, education, and an earnest desire to address their mental health, Dr. Miki helps teachers become more resilient to stress. Such skills are proven to shorten the length of time teachers on are on disability leave while simultaneously providing them with the necessary coping skills to remain effective in the classroom. Dr. Miki expanded to group therapy sessions which teachers find helpful because it offers the felt understanding that they are not alone. With the support of a regional teachers’ federation, Dr. Andrew Miki was commissioned to provide his solution in a format that would reach one-to-many. In 2013, Starling Minds was created to:

  • Address Teacher Mental Health by providing them with confidential CBT training that is accessible anywhere, anytime.
  • Provide CBT know-how so that teachers can better manage their own stress. This has a proliferous effect wherein educators become equipped with tools to stay motivated for improving student outcomes while also having better strategies to help students manage their own mental health.
  • Ensure access & community. With Starling, teachers can readily access a tool to lean on to improve and strengthen their mental health & wellness. Starling Minds also offers a community for teachers to anonymously share and learn from. 

86% of Teachers Improve Their Mental Health with Starling

Our platform confidentially tracks the progress members make in Starling Minds. Our online learning program takes teachers through a series of modules using interactive video, questionnaires and an anonymous community forum where they can engage with other teachers to understand that they are not alone. Educators take a mental fitness test before beginning the curriculum to track their improvement over time. Equipped with quarterly data reports, organizations who offer the Starling Mind program can see how educator mental health is improving, or in some cases declining during stressful periods. Of the 150,000 educators who have access to Starling Minds, 86% will move up the mental health continuum.

 

About the Author

Sean Hougan

Sean is a passionate Digital Marketing Strategist who is even more passionate about mental health. She envisions a world wherein communities and societies work together to ensure that everyone has what they need for mental, emotional and physiological wellness.

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