by Carolyn Curtis
The past year has been exceptionally challenging for educators, who have been dealing with multiple COVID-19-related stressors, including navigating remote, hybrid, or in-person learning, and worrying about their students’ well-being. In education resources, much of the focus during Mental Health Awareness Month has been on the need for educators and school leaders to support students, which is critically important. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five students struggled with their mental health and up to 80% of these students did not receive the necessary support. The rates of mental health struggles in students are expected to increase in the coming years.
We must not forget, however, that educators are often front-line workers when it comes to student mental health, and that they also can be impacted by their students’ struggles.
With only a handful of U.S. states meeting the advised student-to-counselor ratio and student-to-psychologist ratio, and no states meeting the advised student-to-social worker ratio, the mental health needs of students frequently falls to educators. Educator burn-out is at an all-time high and is related to the heightened demands to meet challenging student needs.
But even though educators are often in the position of being the primary support for students facing social, emotional, and behavioral struggles, many do not receive training on how to address student crises and the growing mental health needs of young people. This lack of preparation puts educators at high risk for developing compassion fatigue. Also known as secondary or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue results in physical and mental exhaustion that can come from working with students who have experienced trauma, emotional pain, and/or mental health struggles.
Recognize the Warning Signs
Educators who are at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue may experience the following symptoms:
- Increased irritability and feelings of impatience
- Increased fatigue
- Decreased interest in previously pleasurable activities
- Trouble focusing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feelings of emotional numbness
- Intense emotions
- Recurring thoughts and worries about students
- A belief that your work is not meaningful or that you are unaccomplished in your work
If you suspect you are struggling with your mental health and might be experiencing compassion fatigue, do not hesitate to reach out for help. You are not alone. Search for a local therapist and talk with your primary healthcare physician.
One of the best ways educators can prevent or reduce the effects of compassion fatigue is to nurture their own mental health. Feelings of stress can detract from teachers’ abilities to support their student—resulting in students experiencing their own increased levels of stress. Therefore, engaging in self-care practices will not only help educators but also benefit their students. Self-care strategies include:
- Connect with others both in and outside of work. Despite being surrounded by a plethora of coworkers, teaching can seem isolating; thus, it is important to both build connections with coworkers and maintain friendships outside of work. Try planning a weekly walk with coworkers or schedule a weekly phone call with a friend.
- Find an accountability partner. When we are busy, our own self-care can be one of the first things we sacrifice. Because of this, we can benefit from having someone who holds us accountable for our mental hygiene. Ask a friend if they can check in and see if you have engaged in your designated self-care practices—and vice versa!
- Schedule daily “me time.” We are more likely to do something if it is officially scheduled into our day. Try reserving a twenty-minute block each day for doing something that makes you happy.
- Develop a daily self-care practice. Once we develop a routine, it is much easier to stick to our wellness goals, such as practicing mindfulness or yoga, walking, gardening, eating well, drinking more water, or getting eight hours of sleep.
- Practice an end-of-the-day ritual. For those who struggle to “turn off” work, it is helpful to have a ritual that acknowledges the end of the workday, such as drinking a certain type of tea when you get home or listening to your favorite music or podcast during your commute.
- Establish a “shut-down” time and stick with it. It is crucial to establish a time when you close the laptop, stop responding to emails, and stop making lesson plans. In my experience, you should ensure that you have at leastone hour of non-work time before bed to allow your brain to decompress.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Reflecting on what we are grateful for, even something simple like seeing a beautiful sunset, reminds us of what is going well in our lives.
- End the day reflecting on happy thoughts. Because it is so easy to focus on the negatives, it is crucial to consciously acknowledge the positives! Ending each day by identifying three things that made you happy will help you maintain a more positive outlook.
Educator self-care is crucial to educators and students alike, and now is an excellent time to focus on your self-care. With summer almost here, hopefully you’ll have some more “me time” to develop your self-care practices!
Dr. Carolyn Curtis, LCSW, is a school social worker at a high school in Maine and is a part-time lecturer for New England College’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies teaching education courses on how to support mental health in schools. Website: https://attachedtolearn.com/.