This article appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Teachers have a deserved reputation for selflessness, but it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. Although you may think of your health insurance primarily in terms of coverage for physical ailments and injuries, most policies also include coverage for mental health services.

Research and surveys tell us that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in America. (Teachers tell us this, too.) In one survey, 93% of respondents indicated high levels of stress; the same survey found that teachers with the highest levels of stress and burnout, and the lowest coping abilities, were correlated with the lowest levels of student performance. (It should be noted that the survey did not examine whether the stress was because of, or the cause of, the low student performance.)

In recent years, teachers have been asked to accomplish more with scarce resources, often with inadequate support from their administration and parents, and with increasingly difficult classroom discipline concerns. And now, we can add a global pandemic, a faltering economy, and political unrest to the mix. 

Aside from stress-induced issues, teachers are just as prone to mental illnesses as the rest of the population. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 5 American adults experiences mental illness, with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder among the more common concerns.

Stress and mental illness can take a toll on your physical health. Stress can contribute to or exacerbate mental illnesses, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disruption, substance abuse and more. Addressing underlying mental health issues can help lead to improved health overall.

When your stress levels rise, don’t neglect your mental health. Consider whether you might benefit from professional help. If you decide to seek counseling, individual or family therapy, medication, or other treatment, you should know that your health insurance policy very likely includes coverage for mental health services. 

If you are enrolled in TRS-Care or ActiveCare, you have access to psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and therapists through the Teladoc Behavioral Health service — no office visits necessary. For those in ActiveCare-2 (not open to new enrollees) or one of the new plans, Primary and Primary+, outpatient services are paid with a co-pay; you don’t have to meet your deductible first. The online provider search tool is available on the TRS website now so you can look up nearby in-network mental health providers. (ActiveCare enrollment for the new school year began June 15. TRS has introduced new plans (click here for more) so be sure to check out all of the options available.)

If you are not enrolled in ActiveCare, ask your insurance provider for a summary of benefits to see what mental health services are covered and what your costs would be.

Five tips to help you reduce stress

Aside from professional assistance and medication, teachers can take other actions to prioritize their mental health. There are the obvious physical factors (eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise), but changes at work can reduce your stress levels as well. 

  • Leave work at school. Easier said than done, we know. And for anyone doing virtual teaching from home, this will be harder than ever. But establishing a finite end to the workday — even if at times not every task gets finished — can make a big difference to your stress levels. 
  • Share the work and keep in touch with your colleagues. Having a co-teacher or other colleague who can help with planning and troubleshooting can help relieve the load. And the connections you make with people who completely understand what you’re going through can support you through rough times. 
  • Take time for yourself. Many teachers are also caregivers at home, but as the flight attendants say, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help those around you. Indulging in a hobby or other activity that is just for you may take a few minutes away from your responsibilities, but can help you remain available in the long run for those who count on you. 
  • Try to keep weekends work free. Rather than starting the work week Sunday afternoon, try to wrap up all of your planning and grading on Friday, or get an earlier start on Monday to get ready for the week.  
  • Don’t be too tough on yourself. Teaching is really, really hard and there will always be something you couldn’t accomplish to your satisfaction. When you start feeling down about failures or perceived inadequacies, remember to also think about the things that did go right and what you are particularly good at. Learn from your mistakes — just don’t dwell on them.