Every year, Teacher Appreciation Week takes place over the first full week in May. This is a week to recognize and celebrate the contributions teachers make to our nation, as they guide and care for our children, shaping their skills, reasoning, and habits. But it’s important to remember that teachers are still human. We put them on a pedestal and expect so much of them, but in the end, they are just as susceptible to addiction as everyone else.
Teaching is a demanding and stressful profession
Teachers can be the recipients of gushing praise and harsh criticism—often at the same time. We look up to teachers and expect them to be paragons of knowledge, restraint, and kindness … while also underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking them. These factors united to create a very demanding work environment. In a 2021 survey, 78% of teachers reported frequent job-related stress, versus 70% of all employed adults nationally.
An educator’s workday may consist of planning lessons and activities, grading papers, monitoring clubs, helping with lunch and bus duty, completing administrative tasks, and communicating with parents … all that on top of their main role of actually conveying information and lessons to their students. They often find themselves providing moral support and discipline to their students. They also have to adapt their plans as they handle pupils who learn at different speeds. The heavy workload often makes for a poor work-life balance. It is widely recognized that many teachers do vast amounts of unpaid labor before and after their official workday, and it affects their well-being. One study found that around 41% of teachers felt dissatisfied with their time off.
Adding to the high-stress environment, educators are notoriously poorly compensated for their work, despite its clear importance. It isn’t uncommon for teachers to take on second jobs to get by, and many use that money to fund classroom necessities that are not provided by the school district. From an online survey of thousands of teachers, 67% claimed that their job often left them with low morale and self-esteem.
Teachers’ mental health challenges and substance use
The stress and burnout suffered by teachers can lead to physical and mental health conditions. These mental health challenges are especially obvious in the wake of the pandemic, as more educators report struggles with depression and anxiety. In a 2021 survey, 75% of teachers responded that their morale was lower than it had been pre-pandemic.
Many teachers adopt unhealthy coping strategies. For some, this includes self-medicating with alcohol and substance use. In a U.K. study, 22% of teachers reported drinking more alcohol, while 10% had formed a dependence on prescription medication.
Even if teachers experienced no greater stress or pressure than any other professions, teachers would still be as likely to have substance use disorders as workers in other industries. Nationally, 25.6% of young adults aged 18 to 25 have a substance use disorder, as do 16.1% of adults aged 26 or older.
Challenges that keep teachers from seeking help
As a teacher, it’s easy to rationalize that increased drinking outside of school hours is just a method of stress relief. Likewise, medication (sleeping pills, stimulants to get through the long workday, and opioids for chronic pain) may be considered by some as a requirement for the job.
When alcohol intake and drug use begin to cause social, financial, and health problems, it’s important to seek help. For teachers, however, it may not be so easy. Here are some of the reasons why teachers often resist seeking treatment:
Public opinion pressures
Teaching is one of the few remaining positions that often has a morality clause. There have been news stories about teachers losing their positions after being tagged on Facebook pictures of parties, or Instagram images of them in swimming suits. While these situations are rare, the fact that they exist at all reminds teachers of the pressure to appear perfect and above reproach. Therefore, as alcoholism and substance use are so heavily stigmatized, many teachers choose to suffer through them rather than risk their reputations and careers by admitting they have a problem or being seen seeking help.
Financial cost of treatment
Treatment can be so beneficial in managing addiction and substance use disorders. However, it may not always be affordable on a teacher’s salary. Ideally, schools should have Employee Assistance Programs that help to offset healthcare costs. But many do not. Even in those school districts that do offer these services, teachers may fear that their confidentiality will be breached if billing information goes to their employers.
Because inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment options might require time off from teaching, teachers may fear for their jobs if they take these options. This can leave them feeling like they have only a few weeks in the summer to get their substance use disorder treated. And as per the morality clause discussion above, they may fear losing their jobs if their substance use disorder becomes known.
Concern about the impact on students
Even if a teacher has no fear that they will lose their position for taking time off to get treatment, they often worry about the well-being of their students. After all, most teachers are in this profession because they care about their students’ growth and development. Since requirements for substitutes are very different from requirements for teachers, some educators would rather not entrust their students to a sub for long enough to get help.
Help is available
If you’re a teacher who is struggling with alcohol or drugs, there are options. Telehealth treatment like Workit Health can offer discreet care without the worry that anyone will see you entering a treatment center’s door. They can also provide greater flexibility than many in-person locations, and telehealth treatment has been shown to be as effective as in-person. For those who aren’t ready for clinical treatment, there are also a wide range of peer-support groups that have online meetings nowadays and harm-reduction strategies that can help mitigate the damage of your substance use.
Regardless of how you seek help, please know that you deserve support to get your life back. And taking care of yourself will also make you better equipped to teach and guide others.