Teacher Wellness

Teaching With Depression

A look at some of the common symptoms teachers report—along with strategies and resources that can help.

August 17, 2018
Teaching With Depression
©Ikon images/Roy Scott

Recently, I made a request on Twitter: “Could anyone tell me what it’s like to teach while battling depression?” Twelve heartbreaking emails answered my question.

The teachers reported several symptoms of depression, including a feeling of shame. After his wife suddenly left him, Phillip had to fight the urge to break down in class. (Names throughout have been changed, aside from teachers who have publicly written about their struggles.) A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder fueled these feelings. “I felt guilty and silly telling people I had PTSD—that was something warriors and soldiers got.”

Likewise, Brad’s shame resulted from his perception that depression signaled an inner weakness. Both men unfairly blamed themselves for being unable to overcome what psychologists agree is an illness.

Insomnia and feelings of dread are additional symptoms. “Every Sunday, I woke up paralyzed with anxiety over the coming week,” wrote Nancy Mosely for Public Schools First NC. “I knew I had a whole day [off to prepare], but I was too physically and mentally exhausted to get started. As the hours passed, my agitation became more and more debilitating.” After a weekend of dread and procrastination, her Monday mornings felt like walking toward a “tidal wave.”

Depressive feelings can come out of nowhere. Shalonda was playing with her kids on a carefree summer day when the heaviness descended. Chris felt normal for several months, but recently his positive outlook vanished. Then he lost his appetite, and his decision-making skills became sluggish. Now when he should be grading papers and planning, Chris has the overwhelming urge to hide somewhere and nap. “I want to avoid social events, much less conversations in the hallway.”

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The Road to Recovery

When I asked the teachers what tactics helped the most, everyone recommended trying a constellation of approaches. For example, most of them took antidepressants, but they still needed to use strategies like meditating, exercising, maintaining a healthy diet, and establishing limits. Maria uses the Headspace app to meditate, eats nutritious food, and monitors her self-talk. During dark times, her mantras are “Put one foot in front of the other” and "I won't always feel like this.”

Time away: An anonymous teacher wrote in The Guardian that she eventually needed to leave the profession. Others just need a bit of time off. Taking a break from teaching doesn’t work for everyone, however: Maria’s mental health day made her more depressed. Her long struggle with depression is a reminder to try different strategies, monitor the results, and abandon approaches that don’t work.

Professional help: A doctor told Shalonda that she was dealing with too much on her own. Later, her therapist diagnosed her with secondary trauma, incurred through Shalonda’s attempts to help students with severe home issues. “It’s our job to meet and reach all kids where they are and give them exactly what they need in the way that they need it,” she wrote. “Without the right training and support, this task takes quite a physical, as well as emotional, toll on my body.”

Informing others at school: When Matt’s high school students noticed his dark moods, he shared his condition with them. Some empathetic students asked how they could help. “One positive impact was that it showed them how to continue forward in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds,” Matt wrote. Destigmatizing mental health issues inspired some kids to “advocate for themselves as they dealt with obstacles like ADHD or anger issues in the classroom.”

Calming rewards: After her students leave for the day and she’s graded a batch of papers, Isabella rewards herself with artsy school projects such as creating new worksheets, bulletin boards, or posters. Laminating work for colleagues and mindfully cutting out the items also reduces her stress. “I love the smoothness, the slowness, the calm.” For Isabella, the soothing effect of activating her visual creativity and helping other teachers lasts for days.

What Else Can You Do?

Feelings, intuition, and openness are prerequisites of creative teaching. At times, that makes us vulnerable to the “black dog,” to use an image often attributed to Winston Churchill. If you suffer from depression, some of the following tips and resources may help.

  • For suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now: (800) 273-8255. It’s toll free and available 24/7. Don’t think about it; just call.
  • Call or text a designated friend or work buddy when you need a minute to collect yourself. That might not always work, given teachers’ overloaded schedules. Nevertheless, realize that reaching out doesn’t always burden others—it tells them they are trusted.
  • Avoid downers. Change the topic when chronic complainers start talking. Don’t read political rants on Facebook.
  • Visit Everyday Health to find the right therapist. The site suggests financial resources if cost is an issue.
  • Interrupt negative self-talk. Ask yourself, “Would I ever talk this way to someone I love?”
  • Music pumps joy into the amygdala. Find your favorite jams on YouTube and dance!
  • Keep notes of appreciation from children in your desk. When you’re blue, read a few.
  • Don’t perseverate on your classroom performance. Instead focus on students’ reactions to the lesson. Are they connecting?
  • Pair exercise and friendship. I wear earbuds while walking the dogs or vigorously mopping the house so I can giggle with my brother on the phone about the day’s events.

Depression can be treated. As Nancy Mosely wrote, “You have to learn to trust yourself when you are right, forgive yourself when you are wrong, and still get a good night’s sleep when you can’t figure out what to do.”