Getting Serious About Educator Mental Health


By Julie Foss

Recent trends in purchasing data show schools are spending significant dollars both on social and emotional learning (SEL) and safety and security.  

In an online survey of over 500 central office administrators nationwide, 86% of them said they had either made an investment in SEL or were planning to (Education Week, 2018).

Why the increasing focus on social and emotional learning in schools?

Maybe it is educator outcry from the sixty two percent of teachers who report an increase in the behavioral needs of students.  

Maybe it is because, depending upon the source, there have been between 63 and 239 U.S. school shootings since the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, CT in December 2012.  

Perhaps, with celebrities like Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, and Demi Lovato talking candidly about their struggles with mental illness, it has been destigmatized to the point that we are more aware mental illness is something with which we grapple as a society.  

Maybe still, it is because we are starting to see research show that a focus on social and emotional learning actually works.  A 2015 collaborative study between the Novo Foundation and the Cooperative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) found an eleven dollar return on investment for every dollar spent during their evaluation of six SEL programs studied.  And a 2017 meta-analysis, published in the journal Child Development, found students who had been exposed to SEL programs had an average academic performance of 13 points higher than peers who had not.

Whatever the reason, this heightened focus on SEL for students is a huge positive.  However, statistics confirm that beyond the social and emotional needs of students, the mental health of the adults that surround them should be on our radar as well.

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.1

  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.2

  • 6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.3

  • 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.4

It would seem, then, a comprehensive approach to improving the social and emotional wellbeing of our students would include efforts to address the social and emotional wellbeing of their scholastic models and caretakers- teachers and administrators.

Is there a difference between SEL and mental health?

According to, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”

In other words, if SEL is the learning process, our mental health is the outcome. This bodes well for current students in whose mental health schools are investing by committing dollars to SEL programs – building student capacity in skills ranging from collaboration to managing and regulating their emotions.

But what about the adults?

Time Image.png

Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey for TIME/Economic Hardship Reporting Project

What are the consequences of not addressing the mental health of educators?

Inauthenticity- It rings false for a school system to address the SEL needs of students without acknowledging that these needs exist for the adults as well.

Teacher absenteeism impacts student learning- In 2015-2016 The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of teachers with greater than 10 sick days in a single school year ranged by state from 18% in South Dakota to 50% in Nevada.  Research indicates high rates of teacher absenteeism come at the cost of student performance and financial burden to school districts.  When it comes to looking through the lens of mental health and well being as a potential cause or solution to chronic absenteeism for teachers, research is sparse.

Mass exodus- A 2018 gallup poll on teacher engagement revealed that 48 percent of current teachers are actively seeking employment outside of the education profession.  Almost 30% of teachers who left the profession last year did so for personal or health reasons. And of the teachers who cited professional reasons for leaving, 60% of them left because they didn’t see viable pathways to fulfilling career or professional development. Pay and benefits followed as a reason for leaving at a distant 13%.  25 percent of school principals report actively seeking a way out of the profession as well.

Demoralization- The Harvard Graduate School of Education published a podcast with Doris Santoro on the demoralization of teachers, which she cites as a very real concern facing the education profession.  According to Santoro, demoralization occurs when teachers feel there is a value conflict within what they are being asked to do and what they know is best for students.  Feeling powerless to change it is an additional piece.

Given projected teacher shortages across the nation, failure to address the social and emotional well being of adults would come at both pragmatic and moral cost to our communities and society at large.  It is not okay for this to be the climate among those we are counting on to launch healthy and productive citizens into society. School cultures are contagious. It is time we change the narrative.

Possible Solutions

Business Insider published an article on the “25 Companies With the Happiest Employees in 2018.”  The ability to collaborate with teammates, feeling valued and fulfilled, and having an opportunity to make an impact were the most frequently contributing factors cited by professionals. Prioritizing feedback that makes clear the value educators are making to a learning community, rather than celebrating their compliance is a small but mighty shift we can make to increase teacher fulfillment.


One of the of the longest studies ever conducted on adult development concluded that "good relationships keep us happier and healthier."  Prioritizing adult relationships in schools by preserving team time, looking for ways and opportunities for adults to collaborate around professional goals and professional learning not only build the support networks of adults, they model those relationships for students.

Beyond that, let’s broaden solutions that are working for students to be inclusive of the needs of adults. What tools are we giving teachers to support their wellbeing in classrooms and schools? Organizations like Parlay Ideas, provide opportunities for discourse and discussion. Studyo offers students and teachers with the ability to self-manage their work and time, reducing stress. Global Problem Solvers has videos that teach kids to think globally and empower them to be change agents. How are we engaging teachers in this type of thinking? What investment are we making in the development of SEL capacity in our adults?

Industry experts are prioritizing emotional courage as a key leadership trait.  Are our educational leaders coached in this practice?  How might we provide leadership training that can support mental health, eradicate harmful stigma, and build intentionality around how we set people up for social and emotional success in our learning communities?  

We have a lot of potential solutions at our fingertips, but before we select solutions at random, let’s get clear on identifying mental health as both moral responsibility and strategic imperative. Let’s choose social and emotional wellbeing as a priority. Let’s move beyond words and take action to prioritize the SEL needs of everyone in our schools.  Let’s get concrete about practices that lead to healthy learning communities.  Let’s eliminate thinking about what schools should/should not “have to teach” and commit to connecting every member of our learning community with what they need to learn to be successful.   


  1. Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from

  2. Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from

  3. Major Depression Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2015, from

  4. Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2015, from

Roxanne Desforges