‘So much need’: How one group is helping teachers with mental health

by Jingnan Peng - Multimedia Producer from The Christian Science Monitor

What’s the best way to show support and respect for educators? For one group in Colorado, the answer is to provide free mental health care that empowers teachers.

152370Eleanor Todd offers a therapy session over Zoom. Ms. Todd is part of Colorado Educator Support, a group that provides free mental health services to teachers and other school staff in the state. Courtesy of Eleanor Todd

August 8, 2023 - In March, a student at a Denver high school shot and wounded two staff members. He died by suicide later that day.

When Cary Pew arrived at the high school to teach a trauma workshop to the faculty and staff, the most common thing he heard was that they didn’t have the capacity to deal with the events. “We don’t have time to think and feel about this. We’ve got standardized tests that we need to get done. We’re just trying to get to the summer,” the teachers told him.

Mr. Pew, who is working toward clinical licensure, would offer validation – and a new perspective.

“I often make the reflection of: ‘Yes. On the one hand, you can’t feel those feelings because you need to survive,’” he says. “‘And on the other hand, you’re numbing yourself. And there may be some negative consequences to that.’”

Mr. Pew is part of Colorado Educator Support, a team of students and professors at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora providing free mental health support to teachers and school staff in the state. 

The group works to fill gaps in traditional mental health services and to offer tailor-made help. Teachers saw their skills and capacity stretched after weeks and months of online lessons during the pandemic – and they are still recovering. For many, access to a sympathetic ear is a key support.

The medical school-to-teachers approach “may not be a traditional way of providing mental health support, but it’s working and easing that burden of access for so many educators,” says Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of Colorado Education Association (CEA), one of the state’s teacher unions.

K-12 staff members, especially teachers, have the highest burnout rate of all U.S. professions. Stressors include low pay, high workload, school violence, pandemic disruptions, and the recent culture wars. A 2022 survey by the Rand Corporation found that more than a quarter of teachers had experienced symptoms of depression. Between February 2020 and May 2022, some 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the field. In Colorado, public schools are “dangerously and unsustainably understaffed,” according to a recent study by CEA. 

152370Katie McDonagh/Courtesy of Cary PewAs a part of Colorado Educator Support, Cary Pew provided free therapy sessions to teachers for a year and a half, seeing about four educators a week.

Getting help can be difficult. “There’s such stigma around mental health. And especially as educators, we’re in front of students; there’s sort of this expectation that you’re a perfect person,” says Ms. Baca-Oehlert, a former school counselor who helped get funding from the state for Colorado Educator Support.

The barriers aren’t only psychological, she says. “For most teachers, the only available resource is the health care plan through their employer. Some people have to wait two to three months to get treatment. That’s not ideal. Your mental health concerns can’t wait two to three months oftentimes.”

Colorado Educator Support gets most of its clients into their first individual therapy session within a week, says Amy Lopez, the team’s director and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The 3-year-old program serves hundreds of teachers every year through individual sessions, group workshops, and mental health hotline, according to the program’s annual reports. It is funded through the 2023-2024 school year. 

Tim Neubert, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, finds Colorado Educator Support “incredibly innovative.”

“I would love to see more universities, more people in the medical community, take an interest in this space,” he says. 

“So much need”

This effort in Colorado is part of a rethinking in recent years around ways mental health support is provided. 

About 30% of U.S. employers either offered or were planning to offer on-site counseling or therapy in 2022, for example, up from 25% at the start of the pandemic.

Colorado Educator Support grew out of the lockdowns. In March 2020, the University of Colorado School of Medicine started a student-operated mental health hotline for the state’s medical workers. By June, however, “health care workers had found their rhythm a little bit, and they weren’t using our hotline in the same way,” says Dr. Lopez, who was then supervising the hotline.

She proposed that the program serve teachers instead. 

“There was just so much need,” she says. “Being the parent of a child who was trying to do remote learning, I could hear what was happening. I could hear that everyone, teachers and kids, were struggling.”

Dr. Lopez’s superior and the groups funding the hotline then – the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Colorado’s Department of Public Health – instantly embraced her idea.

“Within the first week, we had more calls than we had in the previous month,” she says. 

But it turned out that a hotline alone was not enough. Many callers said they needed longer, repeated conversations. So in 2021, the program expanded its services with new funding from the state government. The team – seven to eight graduate students guided by Dr. Lopez and other professionals – began to offer up to five therapy sessions to any teacher who needed them. The weekly, hourlong sessions are scheduled outside of teachers’ work hours, so they don’t need to take time off and find substitutes. And because Colorado Educator Support does not deal with insurance, it’s able to schedule sessions much faster than in typical scenarios, says Dr. Lopez.

152370Allie Lopez/Courtesy of Colorado Educator SupportAmy Lopez, director of Colorado Educator Support and an assistant professor of psychiatry, answers a teacher’s texts regarding mental health.

In a 2021-2022 client survey by Colorado Educator Support, 85% of respondents reported that they would recommend the therapy sessions to others. “The counselor I worked with was a wonderful listener,” one wrote. “Thank you for these services, they came to me at a perfect time in my life,” wrote another. 

It’s a “win-win situation” for the teachers and the psychiatry students, who need to fulfill clinical work hours to obtain licensure, says Mr. Pew, who provided support sessions for 18 months. 

While student therapists may have less experience than professionals, most teachers do not present severe issues, Dr. Lopez says. And for educators who do need prolonged treatment, the five support sessions can serve as a bridge to fill the wait time for traditional therapy. 

Not struggling alone

One benefit of a program that targets teachers specifically is that the staff gets better at validating their clients’ experiences – a key aspect of therapy, according to Mr. Pew.  

“The more I work with educators, the more certain themes develop that a lot of them are struggling with,” says Eleanor Todd, who has a master’s degree in social work and has been with Colorado Educator Support for two years. “And I think it’s really powerful to be able to validate to them that they are not alone in that struggle.”

Given the limited number of therapy sessions allotted to a teacher, the support work is often solution-focused. Instead of “handing [teachers] a tool,” the goal, says Mr. Pew, is to “have teachers search through their own toolbox and find the tools they want to use.”

One of the most common comments he gets from teachers is that they have low energy, he says. “Our first approach is to validate that: ‘Of course, it makes sense that you feel that way.’ After that, you ask the solution-focused question: ‘How are you managing to cope with that to the degree that you are?’”

“It’s really a strength-based approach,” says Ms. Todd. For her, it’s crucial to go into her work “with as much respect as possible.”Bottom of Form

“People really have the right and the expertise to guide their lives,” she adds. 

She felt the effect she had when a teacher who struggled with anxiety thanked her. “I still see the bait that anxiety dangles for me,” Ms. Todd recalls her saying. ”But I’ve learned that I don’t have to take the bait.” 

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Page created on 8/11/2023 9:42:06 AM

Last edited 11/1/2023 5:29:11 PM

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