Are mental health problems among teachers on the rise?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 January 2020
How many teachers are struggling with their mental health, and has this changed over time?
This question has long been of interest to teachers and teaching unions, but it has recently received a lot more attention from policymakers.
This includes Ofsted and the Department for Education. While the former released a major report into teacher wellbeing last year, the latter has set up an expert group to drive “real change” in supporting the profession.
Underlying this is a belief that the mental health of teachers has been getting worse over a sustained period of time. Yet this belief is poorly evidenced.
Today, I’m releasing findings from a new paper where I provide evidence on trends in teacher mental health and wellbeing over time.
Reported mental health problems among teachers have more than doubled in less than a decade…
To start, the chart below plots the percentage of teachers who reported having various long-lasting health problems, from 1997 onwards.
One key finding stands out – over the last decade, there has been a striking increase in how many teachers are reporting a problem with their mental health. While basically no teacher said this was a problem back in 1997, and only two percent in 2010, it has risen up to five percent in 2018.
In other words, one in 20 teachers now reports having a long-lasting mental health problem. This equates to around three or four teachers in a typically sized secondary school.
…but the same is true for workers in other professional occupations…
Yet, as the chart below demonstrates, this increase in reported mental health problems is not unique to teaching. It can also be observed in other professional jobs.
This includes other public sector jobs such as nursing, office-based private sector jobs such as accounting and human resource workers, and a wider group of professional workers as broadly defined.
….and there has been no change in anxiety and unhappiness levels
Within various surveys, teachers have also been asked about different aspects of their wellbeing over the last decade. Results from one of these – the Annual Population Survey – is displayed in the next chart.
Interestingly, teachers are no more likely to say that they are anxious, unhappy, or dissatisfied in life, or have low self-worth, now than back in 2011. Despite government cuts, static pay and declining job satisfaction, teachers’ wellbeing has remained pretty much the same.
Might the increase in reported mental health issues be a good thing?
At first glance, these results may seem paradoxical. More teachers apparently have long-lasting mental health problems now than previously, but their personal wellbeing (which captures important aspects of their mental health – like anxiety and unhappiness) has not changed.
But my interpretation is that this is likely to be due to reporting.
Given the stigma historically associated with mental health issues – which is gradually subsiding – it is perhaps not surprising to see more teachers reporting such a problem. This reflects a pattern we are seeing across wider society and should be welcomed.
In other words, many things that we might associate with poor mental health don’t seem to have changed – it’s just that teachers may be more likely to talk about their problems and to seek help, or at least to label them as mental health problems.
If this is true – these things are always really difficult to prove definitively – then the recent increase in reported mental health issues among education professionals may not be the disaster that it perhaps first seems.
This blogpost has been written as part of a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation about teacher health. Further information can be found at https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/health-teachers-england-over-past-25-years
1. According to the latest TALIS data, there are around 70 teachers per secondary school in England. Five percent of this figure equates to 3.5 teachers.