The classrooms of elementary school teachers who suffer from depression tend to be of lesser quality in many areas, and students in these classrooms show lower performance gains, particularly in math, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development.
“Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations,” said Leigh McLean, doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, who co-authored the study with Dr. Carol Connor, professor of psychology, at Arizona State University.
“One of the troubling consequences of occupational stress is that it can contribute to elevated rates of symptoms of depression. Our study reveals some of the negative implications of higher rates of teachers’ symptoms of depression for students.”
The researchers evaluated 27 teachers and their 523 third-grade students (primarily white and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds) in a Florida school district. Teachers reported any symptoms of their own depression, and students’ basic reading and math skills were assessed throughout the year.
Trained observers assessed the quality of the classroom environment through video recordings.
The students most vulnerable to the negative effects of their teachers’ depression were those who were already struggling in math, suggesting that the children who needed to improve the most were less likely to be able to do so when their teachers were depressed. Students with weaker math scores made greater gains when they were in higher-quality classrooms with less depressed teachers.
Teaching is consistently considered one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S., but almost no mental health support systems exist in schools to help teachers cope with this chronic stress.
Studies on depression and teaching are minimal, but one study of early education teachers found that almost 25 percent had diagnosed depression, compared with about 18 percent of nonteachers.
A few pioneering studies have investigated the effectiveness of mental health interventions on teachers’ classroom performance and suggest that such programs have strong potential for positive change. However, most current models of professional development don’t factor in mental health.
“Our study is one of the first to reveal that the constellation of symptoms that point to risks for depression hurt not only the teachers who experience these symptoms, but also the development of the teachers’ students. especially students who are struggling academically,” said the researchers.
“The study highlights the need for nationwide mental health support systems for educators, not only for teachers’ benefit, but for the benefit of students.”
The study’s authors suggest that schools use mental health professionals to help teachers deal with depression. This would include comprehensive health insurance that covers mental health problems as well as professional development programs that could help teachers learn how to handle adverse and stressful situations in the classroom.