The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of both teachers and young teens, with the former — particularly remote instructors — experiencing more anxiety than other workers and the latter reporting depression due to financial stress, according to two new studies in USA.
Teachers are at 40% greater risk than healthcare workers
In the first study published yesterday in Researcher in the field of education, James Madison and Johns Hopkins University researchers assessed mental health among randomly selected Facebook users responding to a daily online survey on trends and impacts of COVID-19 in the US. Researchers analyzed data from nearly 3 million adult respondents – including 130,000 teachers – from September 8, 2020 to March 28, 2021.
Teachers were 40% more likely to report anxiety in the previous 7 days than healthcare workers, 20% more likely than office workers, and 30% more likely than workers in other occupations, such as the military, farmers and legal professions professions. Teachers in a remote role were 60% more likely to report feeling isolated than their in-person counterparts, and female teachers had 70% higher odds of anxiety than their male peers.
Compared with teachers, health workers, office workers and other workers were significantly less likely to report anxiety (odds ratios [ORs], 0.70, 0.81, and 0.78, respectively). Similarly, health workers had slightly lower odds of reporting depression (OR, 0.95) and feeling isolated (OR, 0.96) than teachers. However, clerks and other staff were significantly more likely than teachers to say they felt isolated (ORs, 1.20 and 1.10, respectively).
Teachers teaching students remotely were at significantly greater risk of depression (OR, 1.12) and isolation (OR, 1.56) than those in in-person roles. Across all occupations, women are 90% more likely to report anxiety, 40% more likely to have depression and 20% more likely to say they feel isolated.
Overcoming uncertainty, changing roles
“Even before the pandemic, teacher well-being was a major concern for school leaders,” said lead author Joseph Kusch, Ph.D., of James Madison University, in an American Educational Research Association news release.
He said the team was surprised that teachers had higher rates of anxiety than healthcare workers. “We would hypothesize that healthcare workers who are fighting COVID-19 on the front lines during a public health crisis would show the most concern,” Kush said.
“Although our study did not examine the causes of teacher anxiety levels,” he continued, “we might expect particularly high levels of stress due to uncertainty about how schools plan to deliver instruction, abrupt changes in lesson plans, and teaching methods for distance learning environments and the rapid adoption of new technologies.”
While various guidelines were proposed to promote safe, supportive learning environments as schools reopened after closures, the authors said these guidelines often did not consider the magnitude of the potential negative effects on teachers’ mental health or offer alternative approaches to address these problems.
Kusch said the findings highlight the need for tools and programs to help teachers cope and ensure consistent lines of communication between teachers, school leaders, staff and students. “Teachers’ well-being ultimately affects their ability to teach effectively,” he said. “When teachers feel supported, it increases student retention and learning outcomes. Their voice must be included in decision-making processes.”
Low-income teenagers are most vulnerable
In the Pandemic Teen Mental Health Study, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) mined data on 9,720 American adolescents who responded to at least one survey conducted by the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, a sample of more than 10,000 American children from 11 to 14 years old, from May 2020 to May 2021. The average age is 12.9 years, 47.8% are girls, 18.2% are black, and 77.6% are white.
Participants had data on pre-pandemic household income and mental health. The study was published yesterday in The Lancet Regional Health-Americas.
The authors note that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected global public health, but has exacerbated financial problems in already struggling families and contributed to newfound financial strain in others.
Over 70% of teens said their families lost wages during the pandemic. Teens in families who experienced lost income were more likely to be black (19.5% vs. 12.2%), Hispanic (22.0% vs. 12.9%), and living below the poverty line (15 .2% vs. 4.2%) than those without financial losses. These populations also report higher levels of stress about financial charges.
Family financial losses contributed to depression among participants. While adolescents in all income groups whose families experienced a loss of income during the pandemic reported more depressive symptoms (average 15.3 vs. 14.8 symptoms) than those who did not, the effect was most evident among those from low-income households also reported more stress (mean, 7.7 vs. 7.3 symptoms), but no difference in substance use patterns.
“The relationship between financial stress and depressive symptomatology is robust to the addition of multiple environmental confounders,” the researchers wrote. “Both family-level (family conflict) and individual-level (financial stress) factors mediated the relationship between wage loss and depressive symptomatology,” suggesting that money hardship affects this group through a complex network of indirect pathways.
Both clinicians and policymakers should use the findings, they said, to ease the burden on young people’s mental health from financial hardship and family conflict during economic crises.
“People often think that children don’t feel or understand financial stress, but this study shows not only that they do, but that this stress affects their mental health,” said senior author Ran Barzilai, MD, at CHOP news release.
“Given the strain that inflation is likely to place on family finances, our findings highlight that financial stress is a key risk factor for adolescent mental health during economic crises, and that addressing this stress is important given the current global crisis of young people’s mental health.’