The mental health of school nurses is suffering. Here’s how regional leaders can help

School nurses struggle with their mental health. Almost half said in a recent survey by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they have been abused, harassed or threatened since the start of the pandemic. Forty-five percent reported experiencing at least one symptom of an adverse mental health condition, such as depression or PTSD.

Those numbers amount to a cry for help from school nurses, said Donna Mazick, executive director of the National School Nurses Association.

“What these results show us is the need for maintenance, system-level maintenance, for them to do the work that they do,” Mazick said.

What can district leaders do to better care for their school nurses?

School and district leaders can start by educating their communities about how students’ physical well-being relates to their ability to learn — and therefore how nurses are key to students’ academic success, said Ben Thigpen, Jones County Schools Superintendent. in North Carolina and a 2022 Education Week leader to learn from.

The job of a school nurse varies from district to district, so it is also important for school communities to understand the roles of their school nurses. For Thigpen, who runs a district in rural North Carolina miles and miles away from other medical providers, that means providing health care to teachers and parents as well as students.

Just as important, educational leaders need to communicate what nurses can’t do or what’s outside of their responsibilities, Mazick said. For example, a school nurse might be the one enforcing a vaccine requirement, but she doesn’t make those rules.

School nurses were often in the position to enforce COVID mitigation policies in their schools and bore the brunt of public and parent backlash for decisions made by superintendents and school boards, Mazick said.

The CDC survey of nearly 8,000 nurses representing every state in the country found that they were more likely to report symptoms of mental health problems if:

  • work more than 40 hours a week;
  • report work-related discrimination, harassment or threats;
  • do not feel supported by peers, supervisors or school management;
  • Lack of adequate support or compensation from staff;
  • Take on additional responsibilities during times of crisis, such as during a pandemic.

How to provide additional support for nurses

Additional support for nurses can come in several different forms, Mazick said.

First, there are more tangible policies: clear workplace procedures for reporting harassment or threats; providing health insurance that covers counseling or therapy; and adequate leave policies that allow nurses to take time off when they feel unwell – physically or mentally.

Even something as simple as making sure school nurses can take a 30-minute lunch break each day can help make their jobs more sustainable, Meizk said.

A less tangible but equally important measure is to create a healthy work environment or, in educational parlance, a positive school climate.

“There’s also a system level, an organizational level that needs to provide a workplace that focuses on health,” Mazick said. “And we see this with educators, we see this with other school staff, that if adults are struggling with their mental health, what does that mean for the student body?”

District leaders who build a positive school culture, in turn, create a better workplace for nurses, Mazick said.

“Are people nice, are they considerate? At the end of the day, it’s social-emotional intelligence,” she said. “We teach the kids how to do it, it should be the same for the adults in the building.”

Any initiative or discussion at the district level to address teacher well-being should include nurses, Thigpen added.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to our teachers over the last two years about self-care and self-care, but we need to do that with our nurses as well,” he said.

Even in a small district like his, Thigpen said, just one school nurse would have 700 or more children under her care. “You don’t walk by a school nurse’s office and see them just sitting there doing nothing,” he said. “They are constantly busy and working and have more work than they can do.”

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