How Teachers in California Can Beat Depression
Teaching is, without a doubt, a stressful profession, even when everything is going right. There is an expectation that you are “on” each and every day, no matter what is going on outside your classroom doors. You are expected to be engaging, approachable, and inspiring to a group of learners every day. It is not uncommon for your workday to begin well before the sun rises and end long after 3 PM when your students go home. Work responsibilities and concerns spill over into your free time and your private life. You are also assessed on measures that you often have little control over, such as student test scores, advanced placement exam performance, and even student attendance. And, more often than should be acceptable, you are working without the resources or support you need to do your job to the level of expectation.
The Impact of Depression on Teachers
Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that approximately 19% of adults in the United States had anxiety disorder symptoms within the past year. Further, more than 30% of US adults of either gender will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorders are classified in several ways by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and persistent depressive disorder. That said, it comes as no surprise that many teachers struggle with mental health conditions.
The issues teachers face each day are challenging for all teachers; however, significantly more so for those with pre-existing depression and anxiety disorders. According to Occupational Health and Safety’s website, nearly one in every 20 teachers (or 5%) struggle with mental illness that has lasted or is likely to last more than a year. Also, a 2017 follow-up survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers noted that 58% of teachers reported a recent decline in mental health. While the statistics are not necessarily current, it is likely safe to assume with the ever-evolving conditions outside the schoolhouse doors, the number of teachers struggling with depression and other mental health symptoms continues to rise. Depression (and anxiety) are significantly more common in women than men. If one considers the preponderance of women in teaching, it is quite likely that the rate of teacher depression outweighs the statistics for the population at large.
Despite the challenges they face, many teachers adamantly state that they love their profession and love what they do. Below are a few tips California teachers can use to help conquer depression and maintain their love of the classroom.
Use the Buddy System
Despite the levels of stress or depression you might face, know that you are not alone. At the elementary level, teachers frequently teach their students about the buddy system. Students are encouraged to use a buddy when walking from the classroom to recess or to the cafeteria. Having or using a buddy does not need to stop after elementary school. If depression or anxiety leaving you prone to panic attacks or moments of emotional breakdown, find a colleague who could step in and take over for you if necessary. Having a buddy at school that can come to your class and give you a moment to run to the restroom or taking a much-needed break can make all the difference in the world.
Add Movement to Your Day
It is easy to get depressed or experience worsening of depression symptoms when you feel sedentary or trapped in one place. Exercise and movement boost the amount of “feel good “chemicals released by the brain. Chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin are released through exercise. Dopamine is associated with your brain’s reward system, and serotonin helps to regulate your mood. Additionally, exercise releases endorphins, which act as a body’s natural pain reliever and help relieve stress and discomfort. All of the above hormones and chemicals are increased when you get outside and get a breath of fresh air or make time for exercise in your day. If you find that you are feeling abnormally depressed, or experiencing a worsening of pre-existing depression symptoms, take a moment to get outside, walk around the building, or even walk around the hallways. The hormone boost in your system could help to ease anxiety and depression symptoms.
Invest in “The Rest” of You
For many teachers, the love of what they do can be all-consuming. In some cases, so much so that they forget there are many, many other pieces to who they are as an individual outside the classroom. If day-to-day events or even the events inside the classroom lead to an increase in depressive symptoms, take a moment to revisit your interest in activities, and pursuits outside the classroom. For example, if you were interested in art, take a sculpture or a painting class. If attending the theater is exciting, try to attend performances whenever possible or even take an acting class. Join a club or take a class about something new and exciting just for fun. This can help you create a network of people with similar interests outside of the academic community with whom you will look forward to meeting up with regularly. It will also help you take your mind off the stressors you feel as an educator.
Try to Avoid Isolating Yourself
When you’re feeling depressed, it is natural to want to curl up under the covers and hide from the environment that is causing your emotions. It is essential to avoid doing this whenever possible. You can avoid increased isolation by maintaining social relationships with peers and reaching out to family and loved ones. Make a coffee date, invite a friend over for takeout, or even FaceTime with an old acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while. If you were comfortable, share what you were experiencing with a close friend or relative outside of school. Ideally, this would be somebody who has known you for a long time and can help you put your emotions into perspective.
Establish Routines for Your Day
Teachers are phenomenally busy people. Often more so than they are given credit for, or those outside the academic community understand. It is easy to let teaching take over all aspects of your life, from the time you spend in the classroom to the time you spend sitting on the couch grading papers after hours. However, teachers who have been able to conquer depression and anxiety have learned it’s important to set boundaries and establish routines. Try to schedule your day, so you wake up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, and set a schedule for after school grading time and personal free time. Do your best not to allow school obligations to cut into or interfere with your personal time. Failing to stick to a schedule or routine may cause you to feel overworked, have difficulty sleeping, and exacerbate depression symptoms.
Prioritize Your Mental Health
Contrary to popular thought, there is nothing wrong with taking an occasional mental health day. This is especially true during periods of intense stress, such as what many are experiencing today. If able, try to make sure you have at least one day off in any given month. While the academic calendar often allows for longer breaks around holidays for students, this is not always the case for teachers who are often expected to be in the building for in-service days or mandated educational time. Although working to ensure your students’ mental health is indeed a vital part of your work, you cannot expect to be there for your students if you cannot be there for yourself. Use your mental health days in a way that works for you. Take the day for self-care or catch up on appointments and other essential activities you may have let slip due to other obligations. When your internal voice starts telling you, often loudly, that you need some “you” time, it is essential to listen.
It can be extremely difficult to admit that you need help and even harder to convince yourself to schedule a counseling session or an appointment with a professional such as those here at Meadowglade. This is especially true when depression and anxiety are clouding your judgment and working to convince you that everything is indeed OK. However, if depression is beginning to steal its way into your day, impacting your ability to make healthy decisions, it may be time to consider how valuable treatment could be for your overall mental and physical health.
If you have a pre-existing mental health condition, the stress levels you experience as an educator may only increase the severity of those symptoms. Seeking the assistance of a mental health provider provide you with someone to talk to about your emotions and experiences outside of the academic bubble. A mental health counselor can provide advice or suggestions for self-care that could introduce new ways to decompress during times of high stress. A therapist can also help you learn vital coping strategies for times when you experience increased levels of depression or are faced with a triggering event that leads to increased symptoms.
Don’t let depression take away from the joy you experience as a teacher. Whether you were diagnosed before entering the field or events and circumstances have recently brought about symptoms, remember that you are not alone. If you need someone to talk to or a place to turn for help coping or learning about your symptoms, look to the caring and compassionate staff at Meadowglade. Our team is here to answer your questions and help you start on the road to recovery today.