Prioritise mental health wellness for teachers, officials say

Following the reopening of schools last week, mental health professionals have given the local education system a failing grade for not prioritising mental wellness among the country’s greatest assets — its educators.

Lamenting that problems that existed before have now been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the clinicians argue that counselling sessions should be mandatory for teachers as their roles are highly demanding.

Camille Campbell, associate counselling psychologist at the Counselling and Therapeutic Play Centre told the Jamaica Observer that considering the nature of teaching, therapy for those who do it was a must.

“In COVID I was called in by a school to do a presentation with the teachers on stress management. That is what you mostly find, or psychologists being called into schools to do a workshop or training, but never an individual teacher coming in. I have never seen that. I don’t know if it happens, but I have never seen it. What you will find is more students coming in saying they are feeling overwhelmed with school work,” she said in an interview last Wednesday.

In 2019 the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) said the organisation, which represents the majority of the island’s public school teachers, has guidance counsellors in place at the disposal of teachers.

Campbell said some teachers just see what happens in a classroom on a day-to-day basis as the norm and would just sum up that experience by saying, “Children give trouble and every other job is stressful,” while not seeking professional help.

“And then there is the cost to it and all of that. It’s not like a person is going to readily say, ‘Okay, I’m going to put up this amount of money to do counselling because the work is stressful.’ When I did some training at a particular school, it seemed that they really needed it,” she told the Sunday Observer.

“And one thing I questioned to myself is why isn’t it mandatory. The truth is teachers are leaving home where there are challenges, there are challenges at school, classes overload with students… there’s a whole lot of stressful factors,” Campbell added.

Campbell contended that therapy for teachers should be staple in the education sector.

“I really think it should be mandatory, in terms of having a place to vent, a place to work out problem solving, how to calm you so you can calm a child… that kinda thing. It should have been in the system where that is concerned because these things are important.”

In May 2022, following the death of nine teachers in little over a week, then president of the JTA Winston Smith said he believes the high stress levels in the nation’s classrooms contributed to the incidents.

He further urged teachers to implement relaxation exercises to relieve stress and called for spiritual intervention on behalf of teachers.

James Dibbs, founder and CEO of Sajirah Assessments and Intervention Services Ltd told the Sunday Observer that it is not a matter of whether or not therapy should be mandatory for educators, but really a need to acknowledge the increasing necessity for such.

“It is necessary based on the way our schools operate. Teachers work under extensive stress. Granted, they are supposed to be on break from July to September and they are supposed to recoup. But the way things are now, it’s even worse because they are asked to catch up. And so therapy is necessary,” he said.

Dibbs, vice-chairman on the board of a school he wished not to name, added that the topic of mental health surrounding teachers is one of great concern to him.

“Until they clear the mental health issue with the children, I don’t see that the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education is going to look at teachers’ mental health, and it is absolutely necessary. Teachers are working with 30, 40, 45 children in one classroom, and he or she is expected to come out to work every morning as adequate and perfect as ever. That is almost impossible,” Dibbs lamented.

“Whatever is happening, in terms of mental health for teachers, is like putting a band aid on a wound. It has not been there and I don’t think that the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education will be able to cover it. When you add the stress level of working a classroom, doing the curriculum, and those situations, teachers taking leave and teachers retiring, there is stress on the remaining teachers,” he added.

Ahead of the reopening of schools in 2021, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) urged educators to seek mental health support if needed.

“Feeling tired and unhappy is not the same as being depressed. The major signs of depression, anxiety, burnout, and other mental health problems that need specialised mental health attention include fatigue and sleep problems, rapid heart rate and breathing, feeling of danger, changes in appetite and weight loss, hopelessness, persistent headaches and pain, and digestive problems that do not get better,” the international agency said.

Dibbs pointed to a need for periodical oversight for teachers where mental wellness is concerned.

“Teachers call us about students, but they don’t call us about themselves. There is a stigma on mental health and to tell you the truth it is costly and that is one of the reasons why a lot more teachers are not taking up the service. They can go to health centres, but then the waiting list is extensive.”

Lesli-Ann Belnavis Elliott, director and art therapist at Art Therapy Jamaica told the Sunday Observer that everyone should have some form of therapeutic outlet.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a teacher or a policeman. You’re dealing with the individual. I am always going to advocate for mental wellness support regardless of the profession. Now, depending on the nature of the profession, there are certain professions that are more prone to needing more support in a variety of areas than others, and I do think teaching is one of those professions. It can be a high stress job and the teachers also have their lives,” the therapist related.

Belnavis Elliott also said that, most times, the individuals that request her services aren’t teachers, and pointed to societal limitations that may be the driving factor.

“Do we have adequate systems in place to encourage teachers to go for or pay for therapy? They may want it, but can their salaries afford them the opportunity to pay for such services and pay for such services on a continuous basis? Those are things I would advocate for and encourage society to look at,” she said.

“And we also have to be practical. Do teachers feel like they have the ability to source a therapist? Is that something that culturally they are comfortable with doing? Another thing we have to think about is that insurance does not cover certain therapeutic services, so they would have to be paying out of pocket. That’s the case for everybody.”

Belnavis Elliott also noted that the novel coronavirus pandemic has heightened several issues that were present before, making the need for counselling much greater.

“While we’re looking at schooling there are a lot of layers, because teachers have to be dealing with maybe large classrooms, and students will be coming back with even more emotional and behavioural concerns, and they themselves as teachers are probably dealing with their own stressors as well. So how do you balance that? I would recommend that therapy is one of the outlets that they need.”