School nurses are struggling with their mental health. Nearly half said in a recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they had been bullied, harassed, or threatened since the beginning of the pandemic. Forty-five percent reported experiencing at least one symptom of an adverse mental health condition, such as depression or PTSD.
Those numbers amount to a cry for help from school nurses, said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.
“What these results show us is the need to have support, systems-level support to do the work that they do,” Mazyck said.
What can district leaders do to take better care of their school nurses?
School and district leaders can start by educating their communities on how students’ physical wellbeing connects to their ability to learn—and, therefore, how nurses are key to students’ academic success, said Ben Thigpen, the superintendent of Jones County Schools in North Carolina, and an Education Week 2022 Leader to Learn From.
The school nurse’s job varies from district to district, so it’s also important for school communities to understand the roles of their schools’ nurses. For Thigpen, who leads a district in a rural area of North Carolina, miles and miles away from other medical service providers, that means providing healthcare to teachers and parents as well as students.
Equally important, education leaders must communicate what nurses can’t do, or what falls outside of their responsibilities, said Mazyck. For example, a school nurse may be the one enforcing a vaccine requirement, but they don’t make those policies.
School nurses were often in the position of enforcing COVID mitigation policies in their schools and took the brunt of public and parental backlash for decisions made by superintendents and school boards, said Mazyck.
The CDC’s survey of nearly 8,000 nurses representing every state in the country found that they are more likely to report symptoms of mental health problems if they:
- work more than 40 hours a week;
- report discrimination, harassment, or job-related threats;
- feel unsupported by peers, supervisors, or school leadership;
- lack adequate staff support or compensation;
- take on additional duties in times of crisis, such as during a pandemic.
How to provide additional support for nurses
Additional support for nurses can come in a couple of different forms, said Mazyck.
First, there’s the more tangible policies: clear workplace procedures for reporting harassment or threats; providing health insurance that covers counseling or therapy; and adequate leave policies that allow nurses to take time off when they’re feeling unwell—physically or mentally.
Even something as simple as making sure that the school nurses can take a 30-minute lunch break every day can help make their jobs more sustainable, said Mayzck.
A less tangible but equally important measure is to create a healthy working environment—or, in education parlance, a positive school climate.
“And there’s also the systems level, the organizational level need to provide a workplace that focuses on wellness,” said Mazyck. “And we see that with educators, we see that with other school staff, that if adults are struggling with their mental health, what does that mean for the student body?”
District leaders who build a positive schoolwide culture are, in turn, creating a better workplace for nurses, said Mazyck.
“Are people kind, are they thoughtful? In the end, it’s social-emotional intelligence,” she said. “We’re teaching the children how to do that, it needs to be that way for the adults in the building as well.”
Any initiative or discussion at the district level to address teacher well-being should also include nurses, added Thigpen.
“We spent a lot of time talking with our teachers over the past two years about self-care and taking care of themselves, but we also have to do that with our nurses,” he said.
Even in a small district like his, Thigpen said, just one school nurse will still have 700 or more kids under their care. “You don’t go by a school nurse’s office and see them just sitting there not doing anything,” he said. “They are continually busy and working and they’ve got more to do than they can do.”