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#JamesDonaldsononMentalHealth – #Depression, #Anxiety And #Suicidal Thoughts: How #Teachers’ #Stress Affects Their #MentalHealth

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Paulina Cachero

Long hours and low compensation paired with increasing demands and declining resources have slowly taken a toll on the mental health of public school teachers in this country. (Photo Illustration: Nathalie Gonzalez, Yahoo Lifestyle)
Long hours and low compensation paired with increasing demands and declining resources have slowly taken a toll on the mental health of public school teachers in this country. (Photo Illustration: Nathalie Gonzalez, Yahoo Lifestyle)

After 24 years of teaching at public schools in Louisiana, Holly Beth says she often felt “defeated” before she entered the school doors. Nonetheless, like clockwork, she would eat, sleep and repeat — until she felt the the emotional shift that changed everything.

“I looked at my husband and said, ‘I think everyone would just be better off if I wasn’t here,’” Beth recalls for Yahoo Lifestyle. That never-before-vocalized thought, which she shared through uncontrollable tears, was a defining moment that set off alarm bells for the 24-year teaching veteran. “That,” she says, “is when I knew I needed help.”

Beth went to a medical professional, who diagnosed her with #depression and #anxiety, clearly fueled by the high stress of teaching. She began taking Cymbalta, an anti-depressant — and without it, she says, she would not have finished the last school year. “Only with the medication could I stay,” Beth says.

She is hardly alone in her struggle. In interviews with Yahoo Lifestyle, more than a dozen teachers across the U.S. opened up about how increasing demands of their job have negatively affected their #mentalhealth, resulting in #insomnia, #depression, #anxiety and panic attacks, sending many into therapists’ offices and to drugstores to pick up prescriptions — and pushing others out of the education field altogether.

#JamesDonaldsononMentalHealth – 

Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.

Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.

Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space.  #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle

Research has shown that the problem is widespread — and, in some places, getting worse. A 2015 survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that 34 percent of teachers cited a decline in their #mentalhealth (meaning increased #stress, #depression and emotional challenges). Two years later, that number jumped to 58 percent. Keith Herman, a University of Missouri professor, authored a 2017 study which found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers report experiencing a high-stress level.

Why teachers in America are leaving the classroom for good

The word “teacher,” for many, has long been synonymous with “hero.” On #socialmedia, political stages and news sites, teachers are hailed as indefatigable public servants, selflessly working to shape the next generation of Americans. It’s a reputation they’ve undoubtedly earned, aided in part by how many roles (therapist, parent, first responder) they’re often forced to take on. Of course, there are bad teachers; but the good ones are ubiquitous. Educators who give everything they have and then give more: donating kidneys, fostering their own students and literally taking bullets to tackle school shooters. Still, accurate as this heroic depiction may be, many feel it’s been misused in recent years to excuse undervaluing and mistreating educators across the country. Because teachers, perhaps more than ever, know what they’re worth. And they’re fed up with others not acknowledging it too. “A lot of my colleagues are feeling overwhelmed by the burden that teaching has become,” Rachel Bardes, a former Spanish teacher in Florida, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Things have just gotten so bad.” Teachers — as Bardes and more than 50 others shared in an exclusive Yahoo Lifestyle survey — are sick of budget cuts, classroom violence and salaries so low they need two extra jobs. They’re tired of standardized tests that stifle their creativity and a job that demands their every waking moment — even when they’re ill. As Sariah McCall, a teacher whose resignation letter went viral in April, wrote, “It is unrealistic to expect this much of people. We’re teachers, but we’re still people.” Of the dozens of teachers who spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle, many said that the conditions they’ve endured are fuel to fight for better ones — a trend reflected in the historic statewide walkouts beginning in West Virginia this past February (and rippling to five other states since). But for an increasing number of educators— whether due to family, personal well-being or other factors — it’s all simply too much to bear. According to a Labor Department report (obtained by the Wall Street Journal), teachers quit the profession in 2018 at the highest rate of any year on record. Roughly 1 million public education workers walked away that year, and experts predict those numbers will only get worse. The result is shortages of teachers in multiple states and a dropping number of education majors nationwide. To explore this national crisis, Yahoo Lifestyle conducted a survey aimed at teachers who made the decision — most, in 2019 — to leave the classroom for good. More than 50 former K-12 public school teachers from over 20 states participated, sharing intimate details of ending a career that many imagined would last a lifetime. “I’m very surprised that I am out of teaching,” says Charlie Cuddy, a former math teacher in Omaha, Neb., who now works as a software developer. “My mom always jokes with me that once I realized [being] in the NFL wasn’t a realistic opportunity, teaching was what I wanted to do — just, from as long as I can remember.” Cuddy, whose dad has been a teacher for 40 years (and describes teaching now versus when he started as “night and day”), spent nine years as an educator. He, like many, was motivated to leave in order to have time to be with his kids. Others shared reasons like financial instability or budget cuts, but none seemed immune to the physical and mental toll taken by one of the most stressful jobs in America. Multiple teachers described schedules that made it impossible to meet their basic needs, like going to the bathroom or eating lunch. “I am pretty sure my bladder has changed,” says Jamilah Pitts, a former English teacher in New York who had to send a staff email asking for classroom coverage anytime she needed to use the bathroom. “[I’d write,] ‘Can someone please come relieve me?’” For others, the implications were more serious, either exacerbating or igniting #mentalhealthissues and spiraling at least four of those surveyed into #suicidal thoughts. One such #teacher (who requested anonymity in this story) recalls to Yahoo Lifestyle the feeling of desperation that made it clear that she needed to quit. “The thoughts that I had at the time were that it would just be so easy to drive off the road.” Of the 50-plus teachers who volunteered their experience for Yahoo Lifestyle’s survey, 55 percent said their salary was too low to make ends meet (the average starting salary for teachers is $39,249). Nearly half of those polled said they worked between 50 and 60 hours a week, while 24 percent worked as many as 70 hours. The average American, in comparison, works 44 hours a week and earns $44,720 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as if low salaries and unpaid overtime weren’t enough, 100 percent of teachers surveyed reported having to dip into their own pockets to buy school supplies, kids’ lunches and/or other resources. Eighty-three percent said they spent over $500 of their own money per year; 28 percent of them spent over $1,000. Nearly every teacher, when asked, said that out of everything they’re leaving behind, they will miss the students most of all. “It’s really hard,” says Cuddy. “I miss that part of it a lot — the relationships and watching them grow.” Pitts, who now works as an administrator in a charter school, agrees. “It felt really selfish and really difficult to walk away from students,” she says. “Teaching was my life’s calling, it wasn’t just a job for me. But ultimately that was something that I had to rectify within myself. You cannot pour out if you are empty. And there were just many days when I was constantly empty and pouring out from an empty cup.” “I feel grief about it,” says Bardes, who is now fighting for better rights for teachers nationwide. “When I think about it, I do tear up because this was my calling. But I want this grief and this sadness … that’s what kind of fires me up.” Karin Selchert, who left her teaching job to become a plumber (and now takes home double) hopes that their stories will inspire change. “The sad part to me as an educator is that I’m looking at people who can make a change — and they’re not making a change,” she says. “This affects everybody. If our students aren’t getting a good education from good teachers, where are they going to end up?”

“Studies since the 1990s have shown that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations, and teachers experience high levels of burnout and social-emotional symptoms and disorders at higher rates than many other professions,” Herman tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that a forthcoming survey conducted on middle school teachers found nearly identical results, with 94 percent of middle school teachers having stress profiles marked by high levels of work #anxiety.

What new teachers find in the classroom is often different than what they expected — children experiencing physical and sexual abuse at home, struggling with #mentalhealthissues and #suicide and witnessing or exacting violence towards fellow students and #teachers — leaving teachers with secondary traumatic stress or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Gerald A. Juhnke of the University of Texas Austin’s Department of Counseling has been on the frontlines of some of the highest stress classrooms, creating interventions for teachers and students in the District of Columbia School District’s 15 most violent schools. “The majority of teachers are very easy-going, compassionate people. They went into this profession to be kind and to help kids,” Juhnke tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Then we see what some students face all the time in their homes with substances and the growing threat of suicide and violence against other students and I think this is really very difficult for them. More kids are being abused that they just have a hard time processing that,” says Juhnke.

“There are #teachers that don’t know how to give up and will fight to the bitter end… It’s to our detriment,” says a San Diego educator who takes Xanax for panic attacks (and has requested anonymity). “We’re trying to survive a career that is destroying us.”

Beth echoed these thoughts, telling Yahoo Lifestyle, “If you’re killing yourself 10 hours a day and nothing is right and [students are] not succeeding, there’s just no fulfillment.” For her, the pressure came largely from the school administration mandating daily faculty meetings and increased #teacher scrutiny to raise the state test scores. It was enough to lead to her #suicidalideation.

“The thoughts that I had this time were that it would just be so easy to drive off the road,” Beth says. While she says there was no plan to actually do so, “it was just there in the back of my mind that it would be so much easier if I wasn’t here.”

“I felt defeated”

Faced with larger class sizes and seemingly impossible standardized test-score requirements, many other #teachers have also begun to develop symptoms of #depression and #anxiety.

Victoria Wang, a teacher in Austin, Tex., says she reached her breaking point when she cried in front of her kindergarten students halfway through her second year of teaching. Overwhelmed with the increasing demands of teaching, it wasn’t the first — or last — time she cried.

Still, after that first shattering of the cheery façade she had so carefully constructed, Wang marked on Facebook the day she “crashed and burned.”

“I feel defeated. I feel angry for the students I wasn’t able to reach. I feel guilty because perhaps I should have tried more and fought harder. I feel weak because I see so many other incredibly strong, passionate educators pushing through,” she posted in January.

In the post, Wang, 24, blamed the all-consuming nature of teaching — “endless to-do lists, stacks of papers to grade, dozens of lessons to internalize, goals and percentages we need to meet” and more — for her breakdown. While there’s always more that teachers can do for their students, she wrote that “it cannot be all that we are.”

“I think the idea of teaching — in an ideal day in the profession of teaching — is what held back a lot of my depressive and #suicidal thoughts,” Wang tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But the reality of teaching — feeling like you’re never enough, feeling like there’s always more to do, feeling like you’re failing all the time — that did crack it open a little bit. On the rough days, I would feel #suicidal again.”

Although Wang struggled with chronic #depression before she became a teacher, she never took antidepressants. But the enormous workload and feelings of failure soon led her to start taking Wellbutrin. The new teacher says it helped her find “joy in small moments” of teaching — a skill she believes is critical to the vitality of any educator.

She’s also since started a podcast called Teacher Life Podcast to break the silence around teachers’ #mentalhealth, and to show others who may be suffering in silence that they are not alone. “#Teachers deserve to be heard,” the description reads. “Their voices are important, and they are enough.”

“I couldn’t sleep”

According to medical experts, one of the common symptoms of #depression is difficulty sleeping — which explains why many teachers, suffering through bleak stretches, also cite having issues with sleep deprivation and #insomnia.

For former Greenville, S.C., English teacher Vance Jenkins, the dread of having to go to the classroom kept him up through all hours of the night.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Jenkins, who spent 19 years teaching, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “[I had] feelings of extreme panic, breathlessness. [I would wake] up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, in a sweat.”

In his last few years in education, Jenkins, 54, recalls struggling to capture the attention of his high school students — often more laser-focused on their cellphone screens than the reading material he had assigned. But even worse than their “apathy,” he says, was the classroom violence: Jenkins once had a student who kicked another kid so hard he nearly broke his pelvis before being escorted out of his classroom by #police.

“I was pretty miserable. I didn’t look forward to going into work,” he recalls. “I would get to school physically nauseous because of what I would face that day.”

After seeking professional help for his #insomnia in 2016, Jenkins started going to therapy, taking Ambien to sleep at night and Klonopin and Prozac to treat his diagnosed #anxiety and situational #depression.

For Jenkins, though, the prescriptions, which he took for a total of five years, were not enough; instead, he wound up leaving his job in the middle of the 2018 school year. And his #insomnia and #anxiety, as a result, have receded naturally.

“Life is good. I am much more at peace with myself and I can rest,” Jenkins says, and, even though he now worries about issues such as money and insurance, “there’s nothing that would make me want to go back.”

“I’m scared to death”

Iowa teacher Cassie Lewellen, meanwhile, has found a way, for now, to keep on teaching. That’s despite her intense #anxiety, which stems from her first graders’ volatile behavior. Most days, Lewellen explains, she is forced to evacuate her classroom when one of her students flips a table or punches a wall. But last year, she landed in the emergency room after a first-grader repeatedly kicked her.

“Those poor kids spend an hour not learning anything at school, or they stay in the room and I have to chance the fact that they could get hurt,” says Lewellen about the violent outbreaks. “I shouldn’t have to worry about that at my job.”

Even before that emergency-room incident, the 27-year-old says that she began struggling with headaches so excruciating that she had to call administrators to temporarily monitor her room so she could take a break. Lewellen went to her doctor to discover the migraines were “entirely anxiety-induced,” and now takes Zoloft, an anti-depressant.

“I go on the meds and it’s like I’m much more patient and kind and caring. They’ve helped a lot,” says Lewellen, who still teaches in Des Moines. ”But it would be nice if my job didn’t mean I had to be on them.”

Lewellen’s family urged her to quit after last year’s “nightmare,” but she’s staying until she finds another job with affordable insurance, which she needs for the blood thinners she takes for an injury caused by her student.

“I’m scared to death. I cannot imagine being a classroom #teacher like this for rest of my life,” says Lewellen. “I love teaching. But I don’t love teaching enough to put myself at risk anymore.”

If you are a #teacher experiencing a decline in your #mentalhealth due to the pressures of education, reach out to Happy Teacher Revolution, an organization that provides a network of educators that serves as a support system for those who are struggling with the shame, blame, guilt and difficulties of balancing an incredibly demanding profession with their own sense of self and happiness.

Photo by Filipe Sabino on Pexels.com
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