Teachers are often more than just educators — they’re caregivers, a role that can come with stress and burnout, and may contribute to challenges like teacher depression.
When you hear the word “depression,” there’s a good chance it’s in reference to major depressive disorder, a mental health diagnosis defined by persistent periods of low mood and a loss of interest in almost all activities.
Depression affects millions of people around the world. In the United States alone, an estimated
Depression doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone, in any profession, and teachers are no exception.
Depression is common among teachers.
In the 2021 State of the US Teacher Survey, as many as 50% of teachers reported burnout, while 27% said they were experiencing symptoms of depression. Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have
Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker and executive clinical director at Gallus Detox, Denver, Colorado, explains the findings could be attributed to several factors, such as:
- increased workloads
- high job demands
- lack of resources or support from school districts
- stress from juggling teaching and other responsibilities
District inattention to the mental health needs of teachers may further complicate depression rates.
The 2021 WeAreTeachers national survey found only 6% of teachers received counseling support from their districts, despite the fact that 75% of survey participants reported their mental health was worse than the previous year.
“These findings indicate that depression is a very real issue among teachers, underscoring the need for more attention and resources to be devoted to teacher mental health,” says Carleton.
Burnout can be a contributing factor to teacher depression.
“Burnout is a form of psychological distress that occurs when one feels overworked, underappreciated, and unable to cope with work demands and expectations,” explains Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, a licensed social worker from Morris Plains, New Jersey.
Common signs of burnout include:
- increased absenteeism
- low mood
- lack of care toward job responsibilities/reduced performance
- difficulty concentrating
- lack of creativity
- physical symptoms, like muscle pain or stomach issues
“In the teaching profession, burnout is often fueled by heavy workloads and lack of resources or support,” Carleton indicates. “It can also be caused by a lack of control over one’s work, or an inability to find meaning in it.”
She adds that burnout can make teachers feel frustrated and disengaged, which can further contribute to depression.
Depression is a diagnosable mental health disorder. It’s defined by criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
- persistent low mood or loss of interest/pleasure sensation, nearly all day, every day, for a period of at least 2 weeks
- significant weight loss or gain
- sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or not being able to sleep (insomnia)
- restless or slowed psychomotor function
- fatigue or energy loss
- persistent feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- cognitive impairment
- suicide ideation
Carleton points out, “A common sign of depression among teachers is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of their job.”
He says other ways teacher depression presents include:
- lack of motivation
- frequent absences from work
- mood swings
- difficulty concentrating
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
“While some of these signs may be considered normal under the stresses of teaching, experiencing them on an ongoing basis could signify that something more serious is going on,” he cautions.
Teacher depression is a complex issue. Some stressful aspects of work, like excessively long hours, may always be a source of stress.
If you’re a teacher experiencing burnout or symptoms of depression, there are ways you can limit the impact on your life.
Focusing on yourself
As a teacher, it’s natural to find yourself putting the needs of others first. Sometimes, it can be difficult to find any time to set aside for yourself, even at home.
Taking care of yourself can be an important feature of resiliency, however.
“Mainly, it’s important to make sure you are taking care of yourself first and foremost,” says Kotkin-De Carvalho. “Make time for activities that bring you joy, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with friends and family.”
Learning how to set boundaries
It’s OK to set boundaries like saying no to additional workloads or responsibilities that interrupt home time.
Knowing you can set boundaries and feeling comfortable doing so, however, can be two different things.
Working with a mental health professional can help you set boundary goals, learn assertive communication skills, and work through feelings of guilt you might have when you say the word “no.”
Creating your own support networks
Your educational system might not offer any, or enough, mental health support.
As a teacher, however, you’re not alone. You have a district filled with like-minded individuals who may all be experiencing the same challenges.
“Build a community of peers who can offer support and empathy, since they understand the unique challenges of teaching,” suggests Carleton. “Not only will this give teachers a safe space to vent and find understanding, but it can also provide ideas for managing depression and finding ways to cope with job-related stress.”
Not sure how to start? It can begin with a cup of coffee out with a small group of teachers you know and trust.
Take a short break
One of the fastest ways to reduce stress is to eliminate the immediate stimuli. This is true even in the job setting.
“Taking a break from teaching can help give you time to rest and reset. This could include taking a vacation, going on a weekend getaway, or even just taking a few days off to relax at home,” says Carleton.
Taking time away can help you recharge your emotional battery and can provide the opportunity to reflect on how you’re feeling and why.
Consider changing schools
Sometimes, no matter what efforts you put in to manage teacher depression, the environment is not supportive enough.
If your current position involves variables that can’t or won’t change, like dismissive attitudes in management, it may be time to find a new teaching opportunity elsewhere.
Depression is a treatable mental health disorder. For some, talk therapy may be the best option, and for others, it may be medication or a combination of the two. Considering speaking with a mental health professional to determine the best treatment plan for you.
Teacher depression is real, and many educators experience it. Periods of burnout, changes in personal patterns, disengagement from work, and irritability are all possible warning signs.
It’s okay to need a break from the demands of teaching. It’s okay to set boundaries, and it’s okay to prioritize yourself and seek support. These approaches may help you manage teacher depression when it feels overwhelming.
Help is always available for depression. You can speak confidentially with a mental health representative any time of day, 7 days a week, by calling the SAMSHA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.