School Staff Have Limited Support As Mental Health Concerns Mount From Pandemic Stress

Mar 2, 2021

Crawfordsville High School teacher Emily Race says coming up with ideas about what can help her cope with pandemic-fueled stress feels like another task on a never-ending list of things to do.
Credit (Provided by Emily Race)

The pressure to track kids down, get them engaged in school, and come up with lesson plans they can do remotely or in-person is a lot for one person to handle. Crawfordsville language arts teacher Emily Race said she's exhausted.

"There are rooms in my house I haven't been in since June or July. I'm so worn out at the end of the day – I can't even sit down to enjoy, like, some TV," she said.

Not having the things she used to look forward to – visits with her parents or trips with her best friend – makes it nearly impossible to cope with what she calls a nightmarish workload.

"When I have 20 students who are out but at staggered times for quarantine, trying to catch those patterns for 'who has dropped off the radar, who do I need to reach out to' in addition to the students who are physically in front of me, becomes very challenging," she said.

The way school staff and educators like Race are feeling isn't without consequence.

The Indiana State Teachers Association surveyed more than 2,000 educators last fall, and roughly 70 percent said they're considering leaving the profession because of higher work demands. For many, it looks like at least 10 additional hours a week or more.

But it's not just longer hours contributing to the unbearable pressure.

Heather Ormiston is a clinical assistant professor of school psychology and researcher at Indiana University. 

"Educators' ability to really empathize with and support their students is sort of maxed out," she said.

Ormiston said educators started showing signs of what's called "compassion fatigue" even before the pandemic, because kids come to school with all kinds of life experiences – sometimes deeply traumatic ones.

"It really becomes mentally and emotionally exhausting then – for the educators who are exposed to these situations on a daily basis – to really feel like they have the ability to intervene and support the students that they have within their buildings," she said.

The pandemic has only added more to everyone's maximum load, and as people share troubling reports about how students are faring, Ormiston said school staff need similar attention; they're the professionals responsible for making sure those kids learn, often providing other types of support for them and their families

"Fundamentally, we just really need to look at not only the mental health of our students, but of our teachers and our administrators too, and how we're supporting that mental health so that then they're physically, emotionally healthy," she said.

School leaders aren't immune to pandemic stressors, but Ormiston says addressing staff needs starts with them. She said many teachers report not feeling supported or comfortable bringing up mental health concerns or unmanageable stress levels to their administrators.

"Leadership, the school administration, the district administration is so powerful in terms of really setting the tone for the culture and the climate of the building," she said.

And there are leaders focused on setting a more positive tone to better support their school community. 

Jennifer Mitchell is the principal at Perry Central Elementary School in Perry County. She said this school year, she and her leadership colleagues offer more encouragement – letting some things go to focus on the big picture. 

They also talk with staff about the importance of setting boundaries, so teachers take some time out of their busy day to unplug when they aren't responding to questions and concerns from families.

"Some have little kids that go to bed at six o'clock at night or seven o'clock at night, and so it works better for them to be available. So we've just really encouraged them, 'be very clear with your directions and with your office hours with your families and your parents,'" she said.

It can be hard to stick to those boundaries with so many different needs for students experiencing the pandemic right alongside them, but staff have more tangible options too. 

The school corporation started offering child care to staff in the fall, and pays for counseling and yoga. Mitchell and another principal also helped set up two "R&R" rooms – that stands for "reset and regulate" – each with a massage chair, stocked with coffee and chocolate. 

"If they need 10 minutes of their lunchtime to go down and sit in a massage chair and just take some deep breaths and to reset, then by all means do it," she said.

But there's only so much school leaders can do on a tight budget; Mitchell said the support made available to staff this year has been possible by creatively using existing resources. School leaders across the state have said limited federal emergency funds will likely target other pandemic-fueled problems, like closing widened learning gaps and addressing a blossoming mental health crisis among children.

So as the government slowly rolls out a hotly in-demand supply of vaccines, teachers and other essential school staff see few options other than to just keep moving. 

Race said she has things to look forward to with her students. 

"You know, what I look forward to professionally – I look forward to teaching Jane Eyre to my AP literature students in the spring, because we have so much fun with that unit," she said.

Personally, she's just trying to make it to the end of the school year. 

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.