Pandemic affects mental health

February 22, 2022

Although problems have long existed in teaching, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues and caused a decline in teachers’ mental health. As schools across the country shifted to a virtual- learning format, teachers were required to adapt quickly. A January 2021 survey from RAND found that around a quarter of teachers were considering leaving the profession after the 2020-2021 school year, an increase from one-sixth of teachers before the pandemic.

Latin teacher Scott Allen said stressors affecting teachers have caused him to doubt his teaching. Allen believes teachers are being held responsible for things they cannot control. (Aran Sonnad-Joshi)

“Teachers have felt like our profession is not respected and paid in the same way other professions are,” Barber said. “So, I think teacher morale has been struggling for a while. Teacher mental health [was] not good [before], but not to the point you just feel like ‘I just don’t even know if I can go back in the building.’ I think COVID just took everything for everybody and magnified it and escalated it.”

During the pandemic, the media’s perception of teachers changed as parents began pushing for schools to reopen and resume in-person learning. Many teachers were opposed, leading to public backlash.

“When the pandemic first started, teachers were looked at as being heroes, and then all of a sudden, at the beginning of last school year, the narrative shifted drastically,” Allen said. “I feel like we were looked at as being the bad people because we were advocating for our own health and safety, whereas parents were demanding all across the country that we return to classrooms immediately.”

Allen said the number of requirements placed on teachers during the pandemic and the return to in-person teaching have made him question his abilities as an educator.

“I feel like I’m never good enough, honestly, as a teacher, I feel like there’s always something that I’m not doing that I’m supposed to be doing,” Allen said. “Part of my problem is I’m a perfectionist, and I want to make everything work just right. I don’t even come close to that now. I used to feel fairly effective as a teacher and, quite honestly, I haven’t felt that recently.”

Without proper support, mental health and other outside stressors can affect teachers’ performance in the classroom and the quality of education students are receiving.

“When I was first recognizing that I was developing something that was eventually diagnosed as cancer, and then when I was going through treatment for it, I was far from my best as a teacher during those times,” Willoughby said. “When you don’t feel good, you don’t perform anywhere near as well as you can when you’re feeling good. That’s true, both for mental health, as well as physical health.”

More of my colleagues are more fragile than I ever remember.

— Lisa Willoughby

Mental health issues can also change the way teachers interact and connect with their students.

“On the one hand, because I’ve felt so much more anxiety over the last couple of years, I feel a stronger empathy with my own students who struggle with anxiety for sure,” Allen said. “On the other hand, it’s had kind of a dulling effect, almost like anxiety to the point of depression, like a flatness that has hindered me from connecting as strongly with students as I would like.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made teachers more susceptible to mental health issues, and teacher turnover rate, which was already high, has increased significantly during the pandemic. A May 2021 CDC report found that 27 percent of teachers reported symptoms consistent with clinical depression while 37 percent reported symptoms consistent with anxiety.

“I don’t think there’s any single magic bullet solution that’s going to take care of all of the problems that exist that cause additional stress and have made the mental health status of most educators more challenging,” Willoughby said. “More of my colleagues are more fragile than I ever remember.”

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