MADISON, Wis. — This March marks the three-year anniversary of when COVID-19 was first reported in Wisconsin, and the Badger State turned upside down.

Of course, most schools switched to a virtual format to keep students safe. But how did that impact school staff?

A new study led by Matt Hirshberg, a scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, dove into the toll it took on their mental health.

The study, which was published Jan. 11 in the Educational Researcher, claims to be one of the first studies to “provide estimates of school system employee stress, anxiety, and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study, which ran from June to Aug. 2020, surveyed 662 Wisconsin school system employees, including but not limited to teachers, coaches and food service workers. Employees worked with all age groups from Pre-K to 12th grade.

The study surveyed employees’ stress, anxiety and depression. The study also asked participants if they planned to continue their roles or change careers. These levels were used as baseline data.

Of those surveyed, 77.96% reported anxiety symptoms and 53.65% reported depressive symptoms.

“The degree of elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress we observed is certainly concerning,” said Simon Goldberg, a UW­–Madison professor of counseling psychology and a member of the research team behind the study. “The good news is that we have a large body of evidence suggesting that a variety of psychological interventions can be helpful in reducing exactly these symptoms. Mindfulness and other forms of meditation are among the approaches shown to reduce this kind of psychological distress.”

The study also found those with the lowest family incomes reported having the highest amounts of stress. They were also most the likely to report clinically significant depressive symptoms, and the most likely to want to change jobs. Staffing shortages were cited as a reason for wanting to leave the profession.

The study noted that school system employees who identified as female were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms than their male peers. It is consistent with general population mental health trends. However, the overall percentage of school system employees reporting anxiety or depressive symptoms was higher than the percentage the general population reported during the same time.

Researchers said the results of this study not only point to increased wages as a way to combat mental health struggles in school employees, but also mental health support for staff.

“School systems are tasked with equitably recovering lost student learning resulting from the pandemic in students suffering from greater mental health concerns,” Hirshberg said. “Psychologically healthy teachers and other school system employees are an essential part of any conceivable solution. Supporting school system employee mental health and well-being may be a prerequisite to student and educational system pandemic recovery efforts.”

Read the full study, "Educators Are Not Alright: Mental Health During COVID-19," here


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