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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Teachers Need Mental Health Support Too. This Is How They're Getting It In One District.

A woman holding measuring cups talks in front of a desk. She is teaching her students how to cook.
Wade Odom
Special to KERA News
Shelly Regan teaches a hospitality class at West Mesquite High School. She turned to Mesquite ISD's counseling program when she felt overwhelmed at the start of the school year and said it made a difference. "I'd gotten so caught up in all the loss, my students' loss and my loss. I just couldn't see the top and she helped me see the top."

Mental health experts say teaching during a pandemic has left many educators feeling stressed out and anxious. One North Texas school district has a program to help teachers get mental health support when they need it.

Shelly Regan is teaching her students how to make baked potatoes in her hospitality class at West Mesquite High School, about 15 miles east of central Dallas. It may sound like a typical day, but she said this school year has been unlike any other.

“It was nothing like I’d ever seen in 15 years,” Regan said. “I can’t even describe it. And, we were just hanging on.”

Regan said she spent last summer figuring out the best way to plan, organize, and teach her class during a pandemic instead of taking her usual break to recharge. Then, all of it went out the window — virtual teaching, in-person classes, and constantly changing policies. The fall was filled with uncertainty.

“We were losing personnel, we were losing students, peers getting sick. It was a rough time,” she remembers.

Headshot of Kemberly Edwards
Mesquite ISD
Kemberly Edwards is the director of counseling services for Mesquite ISD and created a mental health clinic to help stressed-out teachers in the district.

Kemberly Edwards is the director of counseling services for Mesquite ISD. She said she saw the toll the pandemic was having on teachers and staff.

“This overburdened, under-resourced system was starting to collapse on itself because the backbone of that are teachers and they are really struggling,” Edwards said. “They are stressed to the max.”

Edwards said Mesquite ISD is a high-needs community. According to statistics from the 2018-2019 school year, more than half of the 40,000 students are at risk for dropping out, with close to 80% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. Even before the pandemic, a district-wide survey revealed that the average stress level for staff members was a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

“My kids are coming to school and they are struggling," Edwards said. "They are struggling emotionally, they don’t have enough food, they are hungry. So, teachers feel overwhelmed with the task of being all of the things, all of the time. They were already at a 7. So, Covid put many of our folks at a 9 or a 10.”

Edwards and her team decided to create a mental health clinic for the system’s 5,500 teachers and staff. Ten school counselors would provide each client an hour of free therapy a week for up to seven weeks. The program is costing the district about $40,000. Most of that money is paying for the counselors’ overtime.

Connie Mallory is one of the interventional crisis counselors. She said many teachers are grieving the loss of loved ones as well as the loss of friendships, jobs, and even physical touch.

“It’s hard enough to be a teacher when you are at your very best. These people are hurting, really hurting, and if we don’t acknowledge that — then shame on us,” Mallory said.

Within two days of getting the clinic’s link on the district’s website, they had 30 referrals. By the end of the first week, they had a waiting list of 18 that’s now grown to over 40. Mallory said some of her clients have found themselves dealing with issues that have long been buried because of the stress of coping with the pandemic. She said finding ways to resolve those problems helps the teachers, and can have positive ripple effects on their students.

“You pour into them, you get them to a place where they have growth and learn and they've said they felt compassion and empathy and then they take what they have received and they are able to pour out to students and you've just grown," Mallory said. "Your outreach has just exponentially just multiplied."

Edwards said that Mesquite ISD, like most Texas school districts, has an employee assistance program that provides counseling services for teachers and staff. It’s a service that’s provided through the school’s insurance program. However, the waiting list for the program can be as long as six months, and many teachers complain that it is difficult to navigate. Regan said Mesquite’s counseling program was easy to access and that made all of the difference. After four sessions, she started to feel like her regular self.

“I was just drowning for a minute,” Regan said. “I’d gotten so caught up in all the loss — my students’ loss and my loss. I just couldn’t see the top, and she helped me see the top.”

Regan hopes other teachers will seek help if they need it. The program is committed to serving at least 200 teachers and staff members through this school year.

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Sujata Dand