The spotlight on mental health’s role in education is expanding. The pandemic has added greater urgency to the education world’s steadily growing awareness of the importance of mental well-being in the classroom. And while the focus of these supports has historically centered on students, educator well-being is a critical piece of the equation for thriving and successful young people. After all, the relationship between teacher and student stress goes in both directions.
Our work at the MedStar Georgetown Center for Wellbeing in School Environments, or WISE, has followed a similar trajectory. When we launched our program in 2013, our mission was to increase access to child psychologists and psychiatrists in areas hardest hit by systemic oppression and adversity. Schools eagerly signed on for us to offer on-campus mental health care to their pre-K-12 students who needed it most. Meanwhile, in the last eight years, we gained a front-row seat to the heaviness of teacher stress and its impact on students. What we learned made us pause and reconsider our roles as school-based clinicians, particularly now during the pandemic.
We began by observing exactly what the research has long told us: Teachers feel responsible for the social and emotional health of students and often have insufficient training, support, and emotional capacity to feel effective in this regard. As mental health professionals, we also noted the chronic stress and trauma that educators face, particularly those in communities that endure high levels of adversity. The adults in our schools needed help, but they had difficulty seeking it. Educators were more likely to push themselves to the breaking point, including illness, burnout, detachment, and leaving the profession.
Given that situational stress can derail any individual’s functioning—whether academic, occupational, emotional, or behavioral—we had to support the gatekeepers of the school and classroom environments. In the early years of our program, we doubled down on efforts to advise leaders on staff well-being and to train teachers in classroom strategies derived from mental health treatment approaches. But it wasn’t enough. Many educators needed their own intensive and targeted services.
Then, in 2019, we piloted a radical approach in partnership with Statesmen College Preparatory Academy, a public charter school located in Washington’s historically Black and underserved Ward 8 neighborhood that is designed to educate Black and brown boys with a teaching staff of Black and brown men. Very simply, instead of providing mental health treatment for students, we offered it to every adult in the building, with our recruitment efforts focused on teachers and administrators.
Clinicians were introduced at whole-school meetings, and services were advertised alongside school leadership to help overcome the obstacles that are most commonly cited to pursuing therapy, including stigma and not knowing what to expect. Cost was also removed as a barrier. Believing that this proactive investment would offset the price tag on staff burnout and turnover, school leaders found room in their budget to pay for one day a week of a clinician’s time. Removing these obstacles to therapy was particularly important for the school’s teaching staff, because Black men represent one of the lowest-utilizing groups for mental health services, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The results were astounding. In the first year alone, nearly half of Statesmen teachers enrolled in weekly, individual therapy, and none of them quit until they felt emotionally well. Of the teachers that provided feedback, 100 percent reported an improvement in personal well-being. One hundred percent also reported that the experience positively impacted their students’ well-being, mental health, and academic performance. As one teacher stated, therapy had “made me more patient and understanding of [my students].”
Just as importantly, in contrast to 24 percent teacher turnover at Statesmen the year prior, only 10 percent of Statesmen teachers left after the year that this intervention was provided. This was not a controlled study, so a number of factors may have contributed to this achievement. However, many teachers expressed that they benefited from and appreciated their school leaders’ prioritization of their mental health.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, this work prepared the WISE team to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19, when teacher support suddenly became the most frequent service requested of us. Since April of 2020, we have provided mental health services to more than 150 educators in over 35 schools in Washington, and we have delivered well-being training and capacity- building initiatives to hundreds of educators locally, nationally, and internationally.
We must rethink approaches to building school culture, creating trauma-informed schools, and closing the achievement gap, and we must do so economically.
Additional program evaluation at WISE is underway to shed light on exactly why teachers take advantage of our services and the measurable impact of these initiatives. But we can assume that the benefits go beyond improved personal mental health. The science of stress and co-regulation tells us a story of cascading effect: With mental wellness comes clearheaded thinking, improved regulation, and greater emotional availability to connect with others, and all of this is naturally absorbed by those around us. One can then expect that a school environment where educators are well will result in adults and students who have greater access to the resources they need to feel safe, to lead, and to learn.
We must rethink approaches to building school culture, creating trauma-informed schools, and closing the achievement gap, and we must do so economically. This is most critical in schools where students and teachers are holding excessive amounts of stress resulting from community adversity, systemic oppression, and inadequate resources, as these are the same schools where staff turnover and inequities in achievement are most pronounced. Through a multitiered system of supports dedicated to adults, one where individualized services are accessible and encouraged, schools have the potential not only to keep educators happy and teaching, but also to help students, emotionally, behaviorally, relationally, and academically.
Therein lies the charge for school leaders, parents, funders, and policymakers alike: Invest in the adults that surround our children and trust that what we pour into them will be felt by our students and our communities.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as A Radical Approach To Student Mental Health: Offer Teachers Therapy