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Teachers face mental health challenges dealing with school shootings

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(NEW YORK) — Ramon Benavides, 2022’s Texas Teacher of the Year, choked up, clutching his infant son as his mind raced with thoughts of the recent mass shootings in his home state.

From the attack at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 to the Uvalde school massacre, the tragedies conjure up unimaginable fears felt not only by parents — but by teachers.

“I can’t even find the words to really explain how I’m feeling,” Benavides said. “I held him [his son] super tight because many parents, teachers involved, you know, they’re, they’re not coming back to their families and their families aren’t aren’t going to be able to embrace their loved ones as I did with my little boy last night. And it’s painful, it’s hurtful, and like I said, it’s just so many emotions just going on.”

The El Paso educator said he is devastated by the killing of 19 children and two of their teachers at Robb Elementary School. The shocking news struck his “soul,” he said, and he is having trouble making sense of it.

“I’ve lived across Texas, so this is something that just hits us all,” he told ABC News. “It kind of leaves you breathless, it’s like a punch to the gut.”

Teachers’ mental health

Having to deal with school shootings is just one of the factors taking a toll on teachers’ mental health.

Educators cite a range of emotions, including anxiety and sadness during a pandemic — now in its third year — as reasons more than half of them plan to leave their chosen profession, according to a survey from the National Education Association. While burnout is a primary cause teachers want out of the classroom, now some are haunted by fears that they, their families and their students now won’t be safe — even at school.

In the almost 10 years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been more than 900 school shootings, according to the gun violence prevention organization Sandy Hook Promise and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The attack in Uvalde is the latest in a long series of acts of gun violence terrorizing students and teachers alike. Last year, there were 42 acts of campus gun violence at K-12 schools in the U.S.

“Mental health in this country is already bad with the pandemic,” Lee Perez, Nebraska’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, told ABC News. The Uvalde shooting, he said, “is only going to make it worse.”

He knows how the pressures can push teachers to their limits. Perez dealt with anxiety and depression due to stress from the pandemic and how the spread of COVID-19 disproportionately affected marginalized minority communities.

Teachers’ job-related stress levels and symptoms of depression were higher than most employed adults, according to Rand Corporation’s 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey. A recent poll of over 3,000 National Education Association (NEA) members emphasized over 90% of educators believe stress is a serious issue.

Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that exposure to horrific events like the Uvalde shooting “can elicit symptoms that are consistent with a trauma response, almost.”

She explained that after hearing or reading about events like a mass shooting, people may notice they are more on edge or irritable and may experience other symptoms such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating. These symptoms, Crawford said, may present after repeated exposure to similar events, even if someone didn’t experience the trauma firsthand.

“We do know that there is this phenomenon known as vicarious trauma,” Crawford explained. “So, just hearing about a traumatic event, you can almost imagine yourself in that sort of scenario and that can further kind of exacerbate some of the symptoms that I just described.”

It highlights, she said, that even in a small community, “you don’t fully know each and every person and what it is that they’re capable of. And so this kind of sense of safety within the community can certainly be threatened.”

Benavides says he’s taking it “day-by-day.” But Perez, his state’s first Latinx and English as a Second Language (ESL) recipient of the top teacher honor, said the shooting in Uvalde also hit close to home.

“These beautiful brown babies [were] just murdered in cold blood,” he said, adding, “it puts people of color … puts us on pins and needles.”

Perez had his first child at the beginning of this month. He tearfully discussed “strategizing” to protect his baby girl, Natalia, if Congress doesn’t pass universal background checks or mental health red flag laws.

“It really adds to that anxiety that has been brought on by all the stuff that’s happened two years ago,” Perez said. “As educators, we always tell families, communities and our students, ‘you are safe at school,’ but then this happens, and then the question becomes, well, ‘are students safe at school? Is anybody safe at school?'”

‘It scares you,’ one teacher said

Teachers have faced mental health struggles throughout the pandemic that initially shuttered schools and has upended education over the last two years. Their fears of contracting a deadly virus, combating a nationwide staffing and substitute shortage and increasing demands on their time have made a tough profession — even harder.

“Teachers are doing amazing work, and they are providing work during a very challenging time. They already had to provide support – to teach kids during a pandemic, and then to have these events happen, can be further traumatizing for some of our teachers,” Crawford said. “And so we certainly do need to have compassion for these teachers, empathy for these teachers, because they really have been faced with a tremendous amount of stress and trauma over the last few years.”

Experts have been monitoring the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of Americans over the last two years. Since April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been documenting self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, using Household Pulse Surveys. These metrics, compared with similar data collected in 2019, show a dramatic increase in symptoms.

Colorado’s Autumn Rivera was a 2022 finalist for the national teacher of the year award who says she considered seeking mental health counseling at her school after the Uvalde shooting. With the school year ending, Rivera is taking time to process her feelings because she can’t accept the fact that many of those slain were Latinx.

“Those are my students,” Rivera said, comparing the population she teaches to the students at Robb Elementary. “That is me and those two teachers, you know, very similar backgrounds, very similar situations, and it just broke my heart.”

For now, Perez struggles with the notion of when this might happen again, advocating for Congress to enact sweeping gun reform that could prevent future attacks on schools. Ultimately, he hopes his daughter has a safer future than today’s students who do lockdown and active shooting drills.

“It scares you,” he said. “Where is it safe? The fact that you have to ask that question scares, not just teachers, but everybody.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine offers resources and support to people experiencing mental health struggles. The HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or helpline@nami.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available toll-free, 24/7, to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress at 1-800-273-8255.

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