A new bill with bipartisan support calls for improved mental health support for educators as teachers, principals, and school staff members continue to struggle with depression, burnout, and stress.
Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., and Susan Wild, D-Penn., introduced the Supporting the Mental Health of Educators and Staff Act in the House of Representatives last week. The bill would authorize funding and establish more resources to help teachers, principals, and other school staff members with mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, and depression.
“The pandemic was particularly hard,” Bonamici said in an interview. “We’re experiencing teacher shortages in many places and community-wide trauma that we’ve seen between racial conflict and gun violence. The concern I have is that educators are leaving the teaching profession because of burnout, stress, low pay, and limited resources.”
The House bill shows that teachers’ mental health is becoming more of a focus for policymakers as schools struggle to address the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a quarter of teachers and principals reported experiencing symptoms of depression as of January 2022, according to a survey from the RAND Corporation. Nearly three quarters of teachers and 85 percent of principals said they were experiencing frequent job-related stress, compared with only a third of working adults, according to the survey.
Those feelings come from added pressures to help students catch up from learning lost during the pandemic, additional working hours due to staffing shortages in some places, low pay, and a lack of resources.
And it’s all happening while students are also experiencing high rates of depression and anxiety. President Joe Biden called for more mental health resources in schools during his State of the Union address earlier this week and education advocates including teachers’ unions have been calling for the same.
“We know that between the aftershocks of COVID, all of the uncertainty that COVID and its variants brought, and now all the issues trying to censor instruction and undermine teachers and not let them answer questions for kids, and then, on top of that, always tough conditions and salary that is way too low, it’s really hard to be a teacher,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the organizations endorsing the bill.
The bill would:
- Direct U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to identify and share evidence-based practices for district and school leaders to use on preventing suicide, improving mental health and resiliency among educators, and training educators in strategies to support their mental health.
- Create an initiative to promote mental health and substance use disorder services for educators in an effort to destigmatize mental health care.
- Establish federally funded programs to promote mental health care among the education workforce.
- Require a regular report on how well federal programs to address substance use disorder and mental health grant programs support educators, to promote accountability.
Supporting students by supporting teachers
The bill’s proponents argue that support for educators will lead to improved outcomes for students.
Research shows that teachers struggling with depression spend less time doing whole-class instruction, have fewer warm and responsive interactions with students, and spend less time planning their lessons.
“When teachers’ morale is high, their confidence is high, and enthusiasm about teaching is high as well, students are more interested and engaged in the classroom,” said Kenneth Polishchuk, senior director for congressional and federal resources and the education policy lead at the American Psychological Association, one of the organizations endorsing the bill.
Strong mental health among educators is also a positive for the school environment as a whole, Polishchuk said. Teachers and administrators with better social-emotional skills have better class climates and improve the overall social, emotional, and academic development of students.
“If a teacher is experiencing the stress and trauma that we’re hearing about, they’re not going to be able to educate to their full potential and be role models for their students in terms of addressing their health,” Bonamici said. “When our educators are healthy, our students will be healthier as well.”
States enact laws specifically supporting teachers’ mental health
The bill isn’t the first of its kind. In recent years lawmakers in Illinois and Washington state passed bills specifically supporting teacher mental health, according to the Education Commission of the States, an organization that researches and tracks education policy.
In Illinois, a law passed in May 2022 requires school boards to give full-time district employees at least five mental health days a year with full pay. Staff members aren’t required to provide a medical note or documentation to use the mental health day.
The law in Washington state, enacted in 2021, directed the state’s education agency to publish resources, self-assessments, and best practices to address secondary trauma among educators, which may occur as educators learn of the traumatic experiences of their students or coworkers.
The law also requires the Washington State School Directors Association to create a model policy and procedure document to help districts prevent secondary trauma in schools.
The federal bill comes at a time when laws limiting how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexuality in states such as Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma have added to teachers’ overall anxiety and stress, Weingarten said.
“Teachers are first responders to all of what society throws at kids—it’s a hard job,” she said. “But then on top of it, if you’re using your best judgment and a governor is basically saying, ‘I think you’re wrong, I’m going to make your life hell,’ that causes anxiety.”