How do you support refugee teacher mental health when stigma stands in the way?

Teacher Wellbeing

Before COVID-19, we promoted evidence highlighting how skilled teachers are the strongest school-level predictor of child and adolescent learning. We also emphasized the correlation between teacher well-being and children and adolescents’ own social and emotional development and mental health. 

While these facts remain true, COVID-19 has helped us realize that focusing on teachers as a vehicle for child and adolescent well-being is insufficient, not to mention problematic. As professionals affected by and working at the frontlines of humanitarian emergencies, we now advocate that teachers require urgent investment in their own psycho-social support and mental health as an end unto itself

To learn about the extent to which humanitarian agencies are aware of mental distress, burnout, or depression among the teachers they employ, I recently reached out to a colleague in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (who requested anonymity).

“Chris,” they say, “you need to understand that teachers hold themselves up as perfect professionals. They cannot be seen by the Rohingya or their own communities as vulnerable or struggling… there is just too much at stake.”

Teachers in Cox’s Bazar are working in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, yet for too long discussions about teacher mental health have been taboo and off the table. However, as my colleague later shares, recent child and adolescent-focused initiatives on psycho-social support and socio-emotional learning may offer a pragmatic and culturally palatable way forward.

For over 30 years the residents of Cox’s Bazar co-existed with the ebb and flow of Rohingya refugees escaping violence in neighboring Myanmar. Historically, the numbers were manageable and there was a duty of care and solidarity towards their Muslim brethren.

In 2017, an act of genocide towards the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military caused an estimated 889,753 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Nearly five years later and with few if any solutions in sight, Cox’s Bazar hosts the world’s largest refugee camp. 

This duty of care is not only wearing thin, it is taking a toll on the mental health and well-being of local residents, especially those working at the frontline of what has become a protracted crisis. Bangladeshi Anthropologist Nasir Uddin describes tensions between the host-community and Rohingya as increasingly fraught, with frequent incidents of violence between both sides and host-community resentment towards the Rohingya in particular.

Host-community teachers have worked with traumatized, under-educated, and developmentally delayed children and adolescents, many of whom were denied access to state schooling in Myanmar. On top of managing these complex psycho-social and educational needs, host-community teachers contend with language barriers and working alongside Rohingya paraprofessionals to deliver the Myanmar curriculum. 

“Of course they are struggling,” my colleague says. “But to suggest a teacher is experiencing depression, burnout, acute anxiety, or worse is to say they are not fit for a coveted and well-paid role.”        

A further risk is the suggestion that incidents of corporal punishment or gender-based violence towards Rohingya children and adolescents at school is attributable to teachers’ own mental health or well-being struggles. 

To make progress on this issue, however, we first need data on the incidence and prevalence of mental distress among the teaching community. But how do we collect data when a wall of stigma, denial, or pride stands in the way?

A possible access point is teachers’ own idioms of distress. While acknowledging the difficulty and vital importance of teachers’ work, we need to learn how teachers describe feelings of frustration, exhaustion, or a loss of hope in their own words and through their own cultural concepts. From a Bangladeshi point of view we also need to learn about the behaviors that such feelings create.

Another solution might be an integrated “task sharing” approach with faith-based leaders, such as community mullahs or imams who counsel teachers on their spiritual development, and through which they can connect concepts of mental health and well-being, too. This strategy would involve the development of partnerships between mental health professionals and faith leaders to co-devise, recognize, and respond to mental distress in culturally compatible ways.

In my colleague’s opinion, however, we should increase investments in child and adolescent mental health and leverage these initiatives as a way of reaching teachers. “It’s a win-win” they say.

In other words, instead of investing in teachers to reach children and adolescents – as we have promoted in the past and now caution as a standalone strategy – we should invest more in child and adolescent focused initiatives as a way of reaching teachers.  

Socio-emotional learning (SEL) projects or teacher professional development initiatives in psycho-social support (PSS) would shift the focus off teachers while normalizing awareness of, literacy in, and conversations about mental health and well-being. 

For teachers to effectively deliver strategies in PSS or SEL in refugee camp classrooms, an implicit awareness of self-care, self-regulation, or personal behavior management is required. Put simply, it is an expectation of such initiatives that teachers can model the tools and techniques they teach in their own lives.

Thus, contrary to our own advocacy calling for a focus on teacher mental health as an end unto itself, when stigma undermines the potential of our investments, the opportunity to work through child and adolescent focused initiatives for teachers’ own development could be a more strategic and culturally sound way forward. 


About the Author

Chris Henderson is the co-chair of INEE’s Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) Collaborative and a Doctoral Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is researching links between teacher professional development, mental health, and well-being in refugee hosting contexts.



The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.