Addiction in the Education Industry
Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Teachers, Administrators, Educators
By most measures, teachers are the most underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciatedworkers in America today. For all the responsibility and skills teachers and other educators have to bring to their classrooms, they live under constant threats of budget cuts, skeptical parents, school violence, and ever-shifting education policies. An addition to the problem is the reality of addiction in the education industry, as stressed, tense, and frustrated educators and administrators turn to chemical substances to cope with the unrelenting pressure of their jobs.
Unacceptable Levels of Stress
Is teaching really that stressful? It is widely assumed that educators are under pressure as par for the course, but understanding the true scope of addiction in the education industry entails examining how deep the problem runs. According to the Telegraph, the tension of teaching is the biggest reason why people leave the profession, because of the toll the job can take on mental health. The British Association of Teachers and Lecturers reported that a 2014 poll on college and school staff revealed a widespread rise in mental health concerns as a result of the job. Over half of the poll’s respondents said that their job had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing, and as many as 80 percent said they felt stressed while they were at work; 70 percent further said that their work left them feeling exhausted, and 66 percent said they had difficulty sleeping because of the strain of teaching.
The workload most teachers have is at “unacceptable levels,” and carrying out that workload in highly pressurized environments, facing constant scrutiny from multiple angles, combines to create a perfect mental health storm. Out of 138,500 days taken off by 31,900 educators, 3.5 percent of schoolteachers take a stress-related absence every year, each such absence lasting as long as 26.9 working days; average staff absence is only 13 working days.
An online survey of 3,500 members of a teachers’ union found that 67 percent of educators said that the stress of the job left them with low morale and self-esteem.
As a result of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, many affected teachers keep their struggles hidden from their employers and colleagues. The British poll noted that this applied to as many as 68 percent of its respondents, compared to how frequently and easily people tell others of a physical injury; in that case, only 38 percent refused to disclose a physical injury to a boss. The general secretary of the teachers’ union communicated her shock at the extent to which mental health stress is so deeply buried in the education industry, commenting that it should come as no surprise that so many teachers, lecturers, and support staff “are now so overworked” to that point that “so many suffer from stress, depression and other mental health issues.”
Teachers and Students Equally Strained
The problem is compounded by stress being “contagious in the classroom,” according to TIME magazine. A study published in Social Science & Medicine found that students showed higher levels of stress if their teachers were burned out on the job. As the effectiveness of stressed teachers decreased, they are less connected to the students and less satisfied with the work, and the effect rubs off on the students themselves, which then rubs off on the teacher again.
This is significant because teachers are not just educators; they have to be mentors and role models, and they have to adopt parental roles for a number of different, unrelated children. Those are a number of hats to wear in their own right, but burned-out teachers tend to have fewer avenues with which to seek support, and they have a limited number of resources they can employ to help them cope. Again, this plays its own role in contributing to student stress.
Buffering against Anxiety
As far back as 1990, the Journal of Drug Education noted that work-related stress was connected to a desire to leave the teaching profession (a point also noted by the Telegraph), as well as drug use. A sample of 500 teachers in Texas on the topic of work conditions, relationships with colleagues and supervisors, job satisfaction, and drug use revealed that “teachers report higher rates than a national sample of lifetime alcohol, amphetamine and tranquilizer use,” as well as higher rates of alcohol use in the past year and past month. Certain measures of stress were connected with amphetamine use. A 1985 article published in the same journal noted that some teachers reported a “great-to-major need” to use drugs to cope with the stress of their jobs, with certain teachers using drugs every day or almost every day as a “buffer” against the anxiety they felt.
A poll found that as many as 10 percent of teachers have been prescribed antidepressants to help them manage the pressure of their jobs, and 47 percent of teachers said they had to see a doctor because of job-related mental health problems; of these, 14 percent received counseling, and five percent had to be admitted to a hospital. Twenty-two percent of teachers said they were drinking “more” alcohol due to their job, 5 percent increased their rate of smoking, and 7 percent said they were more reliant on prescription drugs to make it through the day and then to calm down after work.
Monday Morning Dread
An anonymous teacher writing in The Guardian admits that “my drinking habits fit in comfortably with the majority of teachers I speak to.” The habit of drinking as part of a daily “relaxation regime” that happens as soon as the teacher gets home speaks to teaching being an infinitely more stressful job now than it was in the past. While drinking in the teaching profession is not new, more and more educators today are relying alcohol (even during the school day itself) to help them cope.
Gillian Harvey, another teacher writes that she “couldn’t have gotten through her teaching years without alcohol,” admitting that a group of fellow teachers would make it a point to go to a local pub every Friday just one hour after the final bell of the school week rang and every Sunday night “to ward off the Monday morning dread.”
The drinking was not limited to weekends. Many of the Harvey’s colleagues, and Harvey herself, had a bottle of wine in the teachers’ room fridge; she admits to averaging three glasses every night while “several teachers” left wine stains on students’ homework. She further notes that the problem wasn’t limited to just one group of teachers; her group consisted of everyone from new teachers to veterans, including heads of various departments. Much like functional alcoholics, Harvey’s fellow drinking teachers were all rated “good” by the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education.
Harvey explained that teaching ranks among the most mentally and physically exhausting jobs, more demanding than her stints working in a top London law firm and as a Saturday night server in a bar. While most people might imagine teaching to be an easy profession, Harvey says the simultaneous thanklessness and constant adrenaline rush of keeping unruly students in line “is hard to suppress.” At the end of every fatigued day, it should not come as a shock that teachers need alcohol to calm themselves as well as to prepare for the hours of take-home work they have to do.
Social Conditioning and High Standards
In 2007, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that around 4 percent of people in the teaching industry admitted to past-month drug abuse, as a result of trying to self-medicate for insomnia or anxiety, especially when having to work with difficult students, parents, administrators, and/or other staff members. “Social conditioning” may also play a role if the teacher in question grew up in an environment where drug use was visible or condoned; this may also be a factor for teachers who went to a college or university that had a strong culture of heavy alcohol consumption. The stress of the education industry may also exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, including substance use disorders, that may lead to the development or resumption of an addiction.
Teachers are also held up to high standards, both by their schools and school districts, and the societies in which they live. An elementary art teacher who made a political post on her social media account was subject to widespread criticism online, which forced the board of trustees for her local school board to issue a public statement on the matter. Other teachers have been condemned for the clothes they wear on the job, what they do in their private lives (even when they are relaxing and enjoying themselves), and for any expressions of personal, political, or religious beliefs (even on their own time) that the parents of their children find distasteful, inappropriate, or otherwise disagreeable.
Such is the tightrope that teachers have to walk that it is fair to ask if educators can really have a healthy work-life balance, especially when it is widely assumed that because their “clients” are students, any issues of stress and pressure are over-exaggerated or self-indulgent. In the face of such stifling indifference to the realities of teaching and unending scrutiny about their personal lives, too many teachers are forced to find refuge and escape in substance abuse.
Never Being Good Enough
The anonymous teacher writing in The Guardian says that the constant pressure to not make mistakes while still being human and approachable to young men and women in the classroom results in feeling that nothing a teacher can ever do is good enough. That sense of malaise is a stark counterbalance to the joy of teaching, and many people in the education industry are forced to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, a large number of teachers (the scope of which may never be fully known) are taking their suffering out in drug and alcohol abuse.
It is possible for these teachers to get help for their problems. In the same way that some companies in high-stress fields are creating Employee Assistance Programs to give stressed and potentially addicted workers a safe, confidential outlet to admit their problem, teachers may be able to receive counseling and therapy, and to make the decision to either leave the teaching profession or resume with a clean bill of physical and mental health. However, given the nature of the problem of addiction in the education industry and the sensitivity of the topic, the kind of wholesale cultural change to better address the mental health difficulties that many teachers have (and the environments that create or worsen those difficulties) will be a very complicated and long-term process.
- NIDA for Educators: The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers resources for teachers and educators on drug abuse and addiction. In addition, NIDA offers various informational resources for those looking to get help for their own addiction issues.
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: NIAAA offers classroom resources material for teachers and educators to use. This information can be used to educate students as well as teachers and other staff members.
- The Foundation for a Drug-Free World: The organization offers downloadable material for educators to use in classroom settings.
- Alcoholics Anonymous: AA offers peer support meetings for people from all backgrounds in addiction recovery. Various offshoots of AA, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous, cater to those who struggle with specific substances of abuse.