Kenya Union of Post Primary Education Teachers (KUPPET) Secretary General Akelo Misori explains a point as chairman Omboko Milemba looks on during a presser to accuse the Teachers Service Commission for promoting dead teachers on April 3, 2024. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Teachers unions have expressed concern over increasing cases of teachers dying by suicide due to what they described as intolerable working conditions.

Kenya Union of Post Primary  Education Teachers (Kuppet) national chairman Omboko Milemba said about 100 teachers have died by suicide in the last three years.

Mr Milemba said the number is still on the rise and called for immediate action.

Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) and Kenya Union of Special Needs Education Teachers (Kusnet) highlighted the burden placed on teachers, coupled with unrealistic expectations.

They argued that these are the major factors leading to frustration, a sense of failure, and ultimately, death by suicide among the teachers.

The unions are sounding the alarm, labelling the situation a mental health emergency requiring immediate attention. 

Kuppet Secretary General Akelo Misori said increased alcohol consumption among teachers have gone up as a coping mechanism for job pressures, with some resorting to self-harm.

“We need a two-pronged approach to address the epidemic of mental ill health among the teaching profession,” said Misori.

Misori emphasised the need for a comprehensive approach, including fully-funded mental health training for all school staff. 

“Nobody should be brought to the brink of ending their own life because of their job,” Misori said.

“The government should tackle the factors driving work-related stress while also implementing greater support systems for teachers and school leaders,” he added.

Misori stressed that work-related stress is taking a toll on teachers’ mental and physical health, calling for government intervention to address root causes and provide greater support systems.

“There is no intrinsic reason why teaching should have such high levels of burnout,” said Misori.

He added: “Many teachers are having their health destroyed and others are leaving the profession in a bid to save their sanity.”

Knut Secretary General Collins Oyuu blamed low salaries and high cost of living for teachers’ deteriorating mental health. 

“It is high time that someone somewhere looks into the challenges facing teachers. How many more have to die to get swift action?” Oyuu questioned.

He emphasised the urgency of fair compensation and improved working conditions to alleviate the burden on educators.

“Remunerate the teachers well and create convenient working conditions at entry and exit points and you shall have solved three quarters of their problems,” Oyuu said.

Peter Sitienei of Kusnet expressed deep concern and urged swift action to address the crisis. 

“Teachers form the highest number in mental hospitals and rehabilitation centres with others streaming into hospitals in dozens over depression,” he said.

Kenya Women Teachers Association chief executive, Benta Opande, agreed that suicide cases among tutors are on the rise.

“Mental health is a real challenge with teachers’ wellbeing. All of our members are depressed even heads of Institutions are under pressure,” Opande said.

Emotional testimonies from teachers underscored the severity of the situation.

A head teacher in Kiambu linked the pressure from delayed capitation and parental expectations to teachers’ depression, stressing the need for timely support and adequate funding.

“With the kind of pressure, some of our colleagues with personal social challenges easily sink into depression. Some are lost in drugs and substance abuse,” she said.

“Mental health is in crisis in our profession. It is a crisis. There’s no getting away from it,” added the teacher.

Another teacher called for a holistic approach on addressing their social well-being and criticised unrealistic expectations imposed on them. 

“We need to be mindful of the general social well-being of our teachers before we blindly turn this noble profession into a death-trap,” said the teacher in Nairobi.

He highlighted the challenges posed by low pay and the need for adequate support systems.

“What we are earning is beyond mental repair and the one we are working with is just for surviving if not living,” he said.

Additionally, there were calls for the revamping of counseling services within the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).

TSC chief executive Dr Nancy Macharia affirmed the commission’s commitment to teachers’ welfare, acknowledging the challenges they face, including shortages and the slow adoption of IT skills.

“We recognise the extraordinary work that headteachers, teachers and other staff in schools provide, and we take their well-being very seriously,” Dr Macharia said.

Dr Macharia said to address the challenges, TSC has rolled out a comprehensive health insurance cover with AoN Minet for all teachers. 

She further said there is a teachers wellness department at the commission aimed at ensuring they have a conducive working environment.

The TSC’s annual report for 2021/2022 highlighted the prevalence of mental health issues among teachers. 

The report observes that alcohol and drug abuse, desertion of duty and immoral behaviour affect the effective delivery of the curriculum.

More worrying is the extent of mental health issues afflicting the profession with TSC saying one out of every four teachers seeking outpatient medical services exhibit a mental health disorder.

“The commission has noted with concern that a number of employees with mental health-related cases has been on the rise affecting the quality of curriculum delivery. To this end, the commission has continued to liaise with its stakeholders and partners in sensitising its employees on mental health illness. The commission has also enhanced employees’ medical schemes to facilitate better attention of mental illness related cases” the report reads.

During the period, more than 22 teachers had been reported dead by suicide.

The report emphasised the commission’s efforts to address these challenges through sensitisation and enhanced medical schemes.