'Put your oxygen mask on first': Mental health expert urges teachers to safeguard their wellbeing

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"A recent study highlighted that teacher-student relationships are also stressors for the student, and that the teacher's behaviour predicts the emotional wellbeing and commitment of the students".
"A recent study highlighted that teacher-student relationships are also stressors for the student, and that the teacher's behaviour predicts the emotional wellbeing and commitment of the students".

It's been just over a month since schools returned to full-time, in-person classes after a third round of lockdown closures. 

And with exams nearly in view, the pressure is on. 

Teachers who themselves are exhausted and at risk of burnout are expected to deliver not only educational but emotional support to stressed and anxious learners. 

Also see: Covid-19 | Schools battle to stay open in hard hit Eastern Cape town as teachers join fight against pandemic

'Working at least 28 to 36 extra hours a week'

"It's frightening how many teachers are on anxiety meds," an anonymous local teacher told Parent24, adding that "Many of our staff have become very ill, especially this term, with high blood pressure and Covid-19 symptoms (sometimes phantom Covid-19 due to stress)". 

Explaining further, the teacher says stress has started affecting her ability to get a full night's rest, and she's considered "seeking medical assistance in the form of anxiety meds". 

"I am not sleeping, pulling at least 28 to 36 extra hours a week, if not more, and really do not feel like I am coping very well. There is no time for walking on the beach, neighbourhood or getting to the gym. If I don't do the work, I'll certainly not sleep at night," the teacher admits. 

'The trap of giving relentlessly'

Dr Alicia Porter, a specialist in adolescent and women's mental health and member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) is urging teachers to pay closer attention to their mental health.  

"For teachers to be able to offer positive support to learners, it is important that they are able to understand, identify and address their own emotional needs and possible mental health issues," she says. 

"It is important not to fall into the trap of giving relentlessly without stopping to take stock of one's own psychological needs," she advises. 

Also read: 'I need a break before I break': Local teacher's diary will give you second-hand fatigue

A long list of worries 

Dr Porter says that just as children were faced with having to rapidly adapt to remote learning and unfamiliar technology, teachers were met with similar challenges and many other concerns. 

And the list of stressors seems endless, including worrying about learners without access to technology, tending to the needs of their own families, keeping fears of contracting Covid-19 at bay and coping with the loss of loved ones and colleagues.

Teachers also report additional concerns such as a lack of masks and sanitisers in classrooms, minimal learner compliance with Covid-19 safety rules, and children being sent to school while showing symptoms of the virus. 

What's good for teacher is also good for the learner 

According to Dr Porter, research in various countries shows that stress, anxiety and depression among educators was already high before the Covid-19 pandemic. And with the current situation, many are considering leaving the profession altogether. 

"It is important to safeguard the emotional health of teachers. A recent study highlighted that teacher-student relationships are also stressors for the student and that the teacher's behaviour predicts the emotional wellbeing and commitment of the students, which are also important factors for reducing their stress levels," she advises. 

Dr Porter recommends taking practical steps to maintain mental health, and to "put your own oxygen mask on first".

She advises teachers start by keeping a firm grasp on the things that are within their power to control, such as spending time with family and prioritising self-care. 

She provides the following tips to teachers for taking better care of their mental health: 

Make time for self-care

Choose how to spend your time and make healthy choices such as getting sufficient sleep, staying hydrated, limiting alcohol intake and eating regular, healthy meals. Exercise, rest, read, write in a journal, meditate or spend time on a hobby. These things help to create balance and promote mental health.

Model self-compassion

We teach students the basics of self-compassion, but we also need to model it. Be kinder to yourself. This will benefit your mental wellness.

Set reasonable expectations

We have to acknowledge that we are in a pandemic and it is not business as usual. We can't expect to be as productive or as organised as before while balancing teaching, caretaking and managing households. Set small realistic goals and expectations.

Maintain connection

Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions have made the last 18 months a time of isolation, while social connection promotes mental health and wellness.

On supporting learners through uncertainty and grief, Dr Porter advised:


Admit that the event/s happened. Acknowledge the reality of being scared, worried or upset. Do not pretend that this is all normal. Acknowledge that the "new normal" is not normal at all.

The optimism of support

It is helpful to communicate the optimism of support, that asking for help can ease panic and distress and provide hope. Encourage students to express their fears and anxiety openly. Allow students to feel like they can also help – ask them to think about how they could make a difference.

Don't ignore warning signs of anxiety, depression, and suicide

Take concerns of depression, suicide and anxiety seriously and make contact with the professional support of a psychologist or psychiatrist, or contact a helpline such as SADAG.

If you're concerned about a child or are hoping to seek expert assistance for yourself, the following resources are available to provide support:

South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) Mental Health Line 011 234 4837

Find a therapist near you on TherapyRoute.com


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