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How can Teachers Support their Mental Health?

Last updated on 21st April 2023

Research funded by the Nuffield Foundation is the first to examine the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England over three decades, based on data from more than 20,000 staff. Amongst its findings, it revealed that one in 20 are reporting mental health problems which last more than a year and that around 5% of teachers today are suffering long-lasting mental health problems, up from just 1% in the 1990s. There has been a similar increase in prescribed antidepressant medication.

Department for Education (DfE) research found that “sleeping problems, panic attacks and anxiety issues” had contributed to teachers’ decisions to quit the profession; a third of new teaching recruits leave the job within the first five years.

Education Support is a UK charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and education staff in schools, colleges and universities. It began a programme of research in 2017 to understand more about the mental health and wellbeing of staff working in education. The findings give an insight into the working lives of teachers and education staff over a five-year period and include the last couple of years under the shadow of Covid-19. Education Support surveyed over 3,000 education staff and found that in 2021:

  • 77% experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work.
  • 42% think their organisation’s culture has a negative impact on their wellbeing.
  • 46% always go into work when unwell, rising to 54% for senior leaders.
  • 54% have considered leaving the sector in the past two years due to pressures on their mental health.
  • 72% are stressed, rising to 84% for senior leaders, a 10% increase on 2020.
  • 81% of those who work 41–60 hours per week are stressed.
  • 93% of those who work 61+ hours per week are stressed.
  • 31% of all staff worked 51+ hours a week on average.
  • 66% of senior leaders worked 51+ hours per week, despite only 4% being contracted to do so.
  • 57% of teachers and education staff were not confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their employer.
  • Three-quarters of teachers surveyed think their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses do not prepare them well to manage their own wellbeing.

A survey carried out by the Teachers’ Union (NASUWT) found that almost three in ten (27%) teachers have needed to see a doctor or medical professional to help with the detrimental impact on their mental and physical health caused by their job during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The survey also found that 23% of teachers say they have taken medication to help them cope, 12% have undergone counselling to give them extra support, while 9% use or have increased their reliance on antidepressant drugs.

Other findings show that in the last 12 months as a result of their job:

  • 87% have experienced anxiety.
  • 79% have suffered from loss of sleep.
  • 30% have increased their use of alcohol.
  • 7% have suffered a relationship breakdown.
  • 2% have self-harmed.

These findings come as eight in ten (79%) teachers feel their job has adversely affected their mental health in the last 12 months and of those almost half (48%) said uncertainty about safety in their school was a factor.

In 2019/20 stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health (Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2020).

Teacher managing her wellbeing in school

What is Mental Health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) definition is “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act and can affect daily living, relationships and physical health. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Conversely, factors in people’s lives, interpersonal relationships and physical factors can all contribute to mental health disruptions.

Mental health problems are clusters of symptoms which come together to formulate a diagnosis such as depression, stress and anxiety which can be considered as extremes of more common and usual experiences of low mood and worry.

We need to be aware of mental health and the warning signs, which might mean we need to take a step back and perhaps look for some professional help.

Signs such as:

  • Poor concentration.
  • Being easily distracted.
  • Worrying more.
  • Finding it hard to make decisions.
  • Feeling less interested in day-to-day activities.
  • Low mood.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by things.
  • Tearfulness.
  • Tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Sleeping more or less.
  • Talking less and avoiding social activities.
  • Talking more or talking very fast, jumping between topics and ideas.
  • Finding it difficult to control your emotions.
  • Drinking more.
  • Irritability and short temper.
  • Aggression.

One in four of us will experience mental health problems at some time in our lives. We are all susceptible to emotional/psychological distress – no-one is exempt – so it is important to normalise our responses to some universal problems such as work-related stress, divorce, redundancy, bereavement, accidents and physical ill health. There is a stigma attached to mental health problems which may result in people hiding their difficulties and being reluctant to tell family, friends or work colleagues. It may stop people from seeking help and make them reluctant to seek treatment and support because of concerns about what others will think of them.

Good mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood, though adolescence and throughout adulthood. Looking after mental health can preserve a person’s ability to enjoy life. Doing this involves reaching a balance between life activities, responsibilities and efforts to achieve psychological resilience.

Why is Teacher Mental Health So Important?

Teachers’ mental health and wellbeing is important for the social and emotional wellbeing of their pupils; however, teaching can be one of the most stressful professions. Mental health and wellbeing at work is influenced by the relationship between the individual, the nature of their work and their work environment. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified six key aspects of a working environment that have the potential to contribute to work-related stress:

  • Demands – This includes workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control – This is how much say a person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support – The encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships at work – This includes promoting positive working practices to deal with unacceptable behaviour and avoid conflict.
  • Role – Including whether or not people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures the person does not have conflicting roles.
  • Change – This is how organisational change is managed and communicated.

Work environments that place high demands on individuals without enough control and support to meet these demands pose risks for mental health and wellbeing. Teachers face many potential stressors in their work environment, including workload pressures as well as relational and external factors. Workload aspects include administrative paperwork, lack of non-contact time for lesson planning and a feeling of responsibility for pupils’ educational outcomes. High levels of work-related stress are linked with a range of physical and mental health problems reported by teachers including “burnout”.

Most teachers will agree that a teacher’s wellbeing affects their performance as an education professional, especially their ability to teach in the classroom. Burnout in teachers has been linked with reduced quality of teaching and classroom instruction, and an increased risk of poor student classroom behaviour. Research demonstrates that teachers with poor mental health may find it more difficult to develop and model positive relationships with their students.

This is why safeguarding the mental health of teachers is important, not only for teachers, but also for their schools, colleges and universities to acknowledge and respond to the stress of the job. Good staff wellbeing is essential for cultivating a mentally healthy school, for retaining and motivating staff and for promoting pupil wellbeing and attainment.

How to Improve Mental Health of Teachers

An education setting’s caring ethos and environment will have a major impact on the wellbeing of its staff and its students. It is important for the leadership team to build a culture of trust where staff feel valued, can be open about their health and wellbeing and know how to access support if they need it. For all of this to happen, it is essential for the head and the leadership team to model good mental health and wellbeing behaviour and practise it themselves by remembering to look after their own mental health and wellbeing alongside that of their staff.

Some practical strategies that educational settings can put in place to promote good staff wellbeing can include:

  • Having a staff wellbeing strategy that includes input from staff, governors and parents/carers and ensuring that it is effectively implemented and routinely reviewed.
  • Having clear policies and procedures around staff wellbeing.
  • Promoting good staff wellbeing across the institution.
  • Providing staff mindfulness, relaxation, resilience and managing stress workshops and sessions as part of staff development.
  • Ensuring that appraisal is encouraging and that it concentrates on the ‘praise’ aspect. Targets should be realistic and concentrate on raising standards of children and young people.
  • Encouraging staff to buddy up with colleagues to support each other in providing opportunities for reflective practice and problem-solving work-based challenges.
  • Creating a sense of belonging to the institution by, for example, through team building and development opportunities on inset days.
  • Making staff recognition and praise a part of the establishment’s culture, setting aside regular time slots to do this in, for example, staff meetings, one-to-ones and teaching observations.
  • Having regular debriefs or supervision from colleagues or line managers when dealing with difficult situations and supporting staff to feel able to talk about their concerns.
  • Senior staff members having an open-door policy and letting staff know that they can discuss anything with them.
  • Consulting with staff about change and involving them in developing problem-solving strategies.
  • Having a culture of clear communication about workplace wellbeing.
  • Having a staff champion for wellbeing.
  • Having a dedicated space where staff can go and take time out.
  • Encouraging staff to take breaks, and finishing on time.
  • Having clear information for staff about how they can get help inside and outside the institution’s environment if they need it.
  • Having a confidential employee assistance programme (EAP).
  • Providing advice and guidance for senior staff about supporting a member of staff with mental health difficulties.
  • Noticing and offering support early when a colleague’s wellbeing is at risk. Early problem solving and support can help de-escalate difficulties.
  • Providing good training and development opportunities for staff at every level; continuing professional development (CPD) increases job satisfaction and contributes to good health and wellbeing.

As education staff juggle a huge number of different tasks and demands, it is important that everyone is given the right emotional and practical support so that they can, in turn, support their students.

Teacher discussing mental health with children

How can Teachers Help Students with Mental Health Issues?

As 75% of diagnosable mental health conditions present before a person’s 18th birthday, educators are often the first to notice mental health problems in their students.

Knowing what signs of deteriorating mental health to look out for in students can help teachers to intervene or refer students or their parents/carers to another authority before the student’s mental health reaches dangerous levels. Some signs of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and eating disorders that teachers should look out for include but are not limited to:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Poor performance.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Change in eating habits.
  • Easily angered or irritated.
  • Frequent toilet visits.
  • Constant worrying and negative thoughts.
  • Complaining of physical pain like stomach aches and headaches.
  • Emotional outbursts, for example crying or tantrums.
  • Being clingy.
  • Disruptive behaviour.
  • Low confidence.
  • Lack of focus.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Disorganisation.
  • Self-focused behaviour.
  • Fidgeting.
  • Daydreaming.
  • Impulsivity.

Knowing what factors make a child more likely to develop a mental health condition can enable teachers to make adjustments in the classroom that can prevent conditions from developing further. Some of these factors include:

Bullying – Being the victim of bullying can greatly affect a person’s mental health, as can being the bully themselves. Those involved in bullying are at a higher risk of developing long-term anxiety or depression as a result of the experience. Whilst many educators place an emphasis on preventing bullying in the first place, consideration also needs to be put into looking after the wellbeing of those who have been bullied already.

Difficult home situations – Difficult home situations such as divorce or arguments between family members can be incredibly stressful and upsetting for children. Schools may need to provide extra support to children in these situations who are at risk of suffering from long-term stress, anxiety or depression.

Abuse – Those who suffer abuse, whether from friends or family, may experience mental distress as well as physical pain. They may require counselling or additional support in school to ensure they have the space to recover from their traumatic experience.

Bereavement – At any age, we are all affected by the loss of a loved one, but for a child this can be a particularly distressing and overwhelming experience. Children may experience a range of emotions and exhibit abnormal behaviours. If not dealt with appropriately, these can lead to long-term mental health conditions and behavioural problems. Ensure your school has the right training in place to handle bereavement or contact a children’s bereavement organisation such as Child Bereavement UK for advice and support.

Substance abuse Many teenagers turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the difficulties that come with transitioning to adulthood. While substance abuse in itself is a serious problem, it can also severely impact a young person’s mental health by inhibiting key developmental processes and distorting their view on reality. Some teens even turn to substances as a way to cope with their existing mental health struggles, so it is not only a risk factor, but also a sign of poor mental health.

Pre-existing conditions – Conditions such as ADHD or autism will likely already be receiving extra attention in a school to support children with their academic development. However, these children are also at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions than other children. It is important that attention is paid to supporting their mental health and developing practical skills that can help them with challenges later in life.

Many of these common mental health conditions in children and adolescents are treatable, but, more importantly, can be prevented before they arise. By starting conversations with children about mental health, teachers can help to increase their students’ awareness, reduce stigma and fear of judgement, and increase the likelihood that they will seek treatment when needed sooner rather than later.

The Government unveiled new guidance for the introduction of compulsory health education in 2020. All children in England will be taught how to look after their mental wellbeing and recognise when classmates may be struggling; however, mental health training for teachers has never been more critical.

As many as one in six school-age children have a mental health problem and over two-thirds of young people believe that lockdown will have a negative impact on their mental health long term. Alarmingly, two-thirds of trainee teachers feel unprepared to manage their students’ wellbeing and two-thirds of teachers (65%) stated they haven’t received any training related to mental health in the last 12 months according to the Early Intervention Foundation.

Teachers discussing mental health outside of classroom

How to Look After Your Own Mental Health as a Teacher?

It is difficult to discuss good mental wellbeing in front of a class if, as adults, teachers do not practise it themselves. Here are some simple, practical suggestions for teachers to help look after their own mental health.

Be active and eat healthy meals – As well as known physical benefits, exercise can help improve your mood, self-esteem and ability to deal with stress. The World Health Organisation suggests that adults, on average, should do about 22 minutes of physical activity per day.

It is so easy to be put off when perceived barriers such as feeling too tired get in the way of exercise. However, physical activity can actually help combat fatigue and doesn’t have to be organised sport or gym membership, a short walk or cycle ride is just as effective. Being active can encourage better mental health, especially if it helps with socialising or focusing on the present. Make sure you are taking care of your body; exercise reduces stress and healthy balanced meals help to reduce the risk of physical health problems.

Keep learning – Why does learning increase your mental wellbeing? As well as giving a sense of achievement, being enjoyable, and helping you cope with stressful events, a study into adult learning by University College London (UCL) found that “the most fundamental and pervasive benefit from learning of every kind is a growth in self-confidence”. Learning does not have to mean formal education. It can be anything that develops your knowledge in any area. Stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new will enhance this. The feeling of achievement new skills can give you can help your emotional wellbeing and will be motivating.

Have “me” day – One day a week where you do something fun that you want to do. What are your hobbies, passions and interests outside of your career as a teacher? Invest time in whatever it is that makes you happy, or if you just want to disconnect from the outside world, do that and relax, after all, it’s your day.

Express yourself – Some people confide in others and some prefer to just write down in a diary how they are feeling; find a way to let it out and express yourself rather than bottling it all up.

In Conclusion

As a teacher, you probably tend to put your needs after the needs of others, but you must draw the line somewhere for your own good. Remember when airlines give out their safety instructions they say, “Adults attend to your own mask before attending to children”. The same needs to apply to teachers, as they must look after their own mental wellbeing in order to be able to look after the mental wellbeing of their students.

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About the author

Eve Johnson

Eve Johnson

Eve has worked at CPD from the start, she organises the course and blog production, as well as supporting students with any problems they may have and helping them choose the correct courses. Eve is also studying for her Business Administration Level 3 qualification. Outside of work Eve likes to buy anything with flamingos on it, catching up with friends, spending time with her family and occasionally going to the gym!

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