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Why We Should Care about the Mental Health of Our Educators...

The other day, my eight year old woke up at 5:30am complaining of bad stomach pains. As tears ran down her face, I examined her for any other symptoms: fever-no, pain when pressing on different areas-no, throwing up-thank goodness, no. After giving her a dose of Tylenol, she calmed down and seemed fine.That’s when a fleeting thought flew across my mind. Could my eight year old have just experienced an anxiety attack?

First, let me say that she was definitely not having an anxiety attack. Later that afternoon, other symptoms appeared. We’ll leave it there.

I also know that my area of research and expertise probably makes me a little more prone to jump to the anxiety conclusion.

However, it’s not that crazy of an idea–not when we know that 70% of our high schoolers are stating that anxiety and depression is a major problem amongst their peers as reported in the latest Pew research study released in February. In fact, professor Ramin Mojtabai from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that clinical depression amongst adolescents increased by 37% between 2005 and 2014, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 3 million adolescents between the ages of 12-17 have a major depressive episode every year.

These statistics alone are shocking and saddening, and the news gets worse. Research out of the University of California, Berkley, Harvard, and many other leading research institutions has found that chronic or toxic stress is causing detrimental effects to the brains of our children.

Let me back up. What is stress? Stress is technically anything that takes you out of a state of balance or homeostasis. Stress can be positive. For example, the stress of standing at the free throw line with two seconds left when you’re down by two can be a healthy developmental experience for a lot of people. We learn how to regulate our heart rates and calm our nervous energy.

Stress can also be situational. The stress we experience during a car accident or during a natural disaster can be significant, but because it is situational–meaning that when the situation changes, the stress changes–we can recover from it if we have supports such as meaningful relationships or a community that wraps services around us. Support is key.

There is another type of stress, though, that is even more onerous and sneaky–chronic or toxic stress. This type of stress can be in the form of physical, mental, or verbal abuse; poverty; bullying; or even in more subtle forms, such as sustained pressure to perform academically or socially. The key here too is that the effects of chronic or toxic stress can be minimized if there are effective and consistent supports for that individual like strong relationships with emotionally regulated adults.

However, if the chronic stress has its way with the brain, we know that cortisol (the stress hormone) can have a detrimental effect–causing breakdowns in the neural pathways between the limbic system (our emotional center) and the prefrontal cortex (our rational center)–meaning that our kids can’t move out of their stress response (fight, flight, or freeze) effectively. Cortisol has also been shown to shrink the lining of the hippocampus which is our memory center and build up myelin (fatty white matter) within the brain which has been shown to be related to conditions such as PTSD, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, and depression.

In other words, stress and the statistics above related to the health and wellbeing of our youth are intertwined. But, here’s the key. The impact of stress on the minds and bodies of our youth can be minimized if there are strong, emotionally resilient adults in their lives.

Which is why you should really be concerned about the next statistics.

According to research by Penn State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 46% of our educators report experiencing high levels of stress on a daily basis. Depending on which research you look at, anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 teachers leave the field annually due to burnout, and according to UK’s Education Support Partnership, the number of educators who sought out their services for mental health support increased by 35% in 2018.

And here is the bad news. Stress is contagious. Groundbreaking research out of the University of British Columbia, “found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, students' cortisol levels were elevated.” They measured this through saliva samples from over 400 elementary students. While this may be a “chicken or the egg” issue, we know that the exchange of stress is cyclical. Stress begets stress.

We also know that relationships matter. If we want to end the detrimental impacts of stress for our students, we cannot only throw money and resources directly at mental health services for our students. We need to also focus on helping our educators improve their own mental health and resilience.

The other afternoon, I was working with a group of high school students on a project, which focuses on how a local university can help address the impending teacher shortage in our state. They were talking about all of the reasons why students choose to not go into teaching, and they shared a number of reasons why they personally would not want to be a teacher. The most poignant response came from a young woman, "My teachers just make it look like a miserable job.”

Our students know the stress of their teachers, and because of how we are wired physiologically, they mirror that stress. If we truly care about improving the mental health of our students, ending the climbing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, then we must also care about the mental health of our educators. We must look at ways we can foster resilient educators who have the cognitive and emotional flexibility to meet the ever-changing needs of our students.

These are the resilient adults our students are counting on every day to help them build a brighter future. We cannot afford to ignore their plight any longer.

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