Today is World Mental Health Day, and I spent this morning in a school discussing this with their staff. It is a subject close to my heart – as a teacher, I had two periods of prolonged absence due to my mental health. Life pressures played a part, but the profession played a more prominent role. It will come as no surprise that when I decided to leave the classroom, my mental and physical health played a part – particularly because that decision was made while sitting in the accident and emergency department and the local hospital with two broken toes.
It was four years after losing my mum. I am sat in the toilets at school, crying quietly, desperately trying not to be heard by the person in the cubical next to me. I knew I only had minutes until the bell would go. I needed to pull myself together. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt weak and useless; surely, everyone would be better without me. What sort of teacher was I anyway?
I went to see my GP and explained my physical symptoms: headaches, racing heart, upset tummy, aches and pains. My hypermobility was flaring. He warned me that if I didn’t start dealing with my mental health, I was fast heading towards a breakdown.
But this was a physical illness, not a mental illness. I wasn’t the type of person who was weak enough to be bothered by mental illness, was I?! I didn’t want to disappoint anyone; I had to keep going.
Months passed; I lost my dad right before the summer but had seven weeks to get over it. But six months on, I wasn’t eating right, either binging or nothing at all. I couldn’t switch off; it felt like the constant thoughts I had no control over were physically banging off me; there were just so many. I felt the world was against me; nothing I could say or do was right, and everyone wanted to tell me how wrong I was. I was exhausted, yet I would sleep for 14+ hours or struggle to get any. Eventually, my subconscious made me take note of what was happening in a horrifying way. I crawled into the doctor one morning broken. I was signed off with stress and depression.
This was tough, as it challenged everything I believed about mental illness. I was terrified to let the school know how ill I was. Indeed, I did not let on how bad I was to colleagues as I was terrified that I would be struck off and no longer fit to be a teacher. Unfortunately, over ten years later, there is still a fear and stigma around mental health in education.
But, as my GP explained, if a chemical balance in my liver or kidneys (or any other organ) made me ill or if I broke a bone, I would gladly seek help; why was the brain any different? Mental health was not a weakness; it was an illness and should be treated as such.
It took a long time, but slowly, I put myself back together and got back to teaching.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later, I had another wobble. I had a problematic head teacher, did not feel supported, and went off sick again. Thankfully, this time, I noticed the signs before I got very ill and had strategies I used to help myself get better. Strategies that I still use to this day.
The last few months have been hard for me. Many medical tests (over 20 appointments in 3 months) led to me learning things about my body I did not know, which also explained many things. I am fine, I am healthy, but it is things that will impact the rest of my life. It also fundamentally changed my view of myself and what it is to be female. But having lots of strategies has helped me so much. These strategies include
- A support network of people I can talk to and be completely open and honest with (thanks go to Maz at Confidence and Chaos Crew)
- A husband and friends whom I love and who, though it took time to learn to, I can talk things through with (it is ok to be vulnerable and does not mean you are a nuisance)
- A journal, I don’t use it every day, but it is there when I need it.
- Time outdoors (I bet you were waiting for that one – if you need a reminder of the benefits, then see this blog)
- Practising being kind to me, sometimes I want to do lots, others I need to curl up and do nothing and beating myself up for that does no good.
Now, how does all of this tie into my discussion at the school this morning? It’s no secret that teaching is one of the most stressful professions out there7. Teachers and school management are well aware of education’s significant mental health challenges and that teachers are struggling. Consider these alarming statistics:
- 83% of teachers said their mental health had declined over the previous 12 months as a result of their job6
- In Scotland, we have lost an estimated 1,500 years of school staff time due to mental health (yes, that really does say 1,500 years!)2
- Almost half of teachers have seen their doctor or another medical professional. We are not talking throughout their career, but just in a single year4
- Twenty per cent of new teachers leave the profession after their first two years5
- Stress and burnout are leading to thousands of experienced teachers leaving the profession3
- 34% of educators said that “their stress at work wasn’t manageable and that their stress levels were so high that they negatively affect their work and/or personal life” 1
While I appreciate that working in education is not the only contributor to a decline in mental health – for me, losing both parents within four years played a huge role, there is no denying that the job also played a part. This is common, with nine in ten teachers saying their job has worsened mental health7.
As I sit here, at home, in my safe space, writing this, I am shaking and feel physically sick. Education is in crisis. The impact of this is highly worrying for several reasons.
- High levels of prolonged stress have been attributed to a host of physical and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, headaches, stomach problems, sleeping problems, dizziness and changes in weight1
- Chronic stress at work and in private life is also associated with a 40–50% increase in the occurrence of coronary heart disease in prospective observational studies1
- That teachers’ mental health and wellbeing are important for the social and emotional wellbeing of their pupils7
I used to joke with friends, saying that if I continued the way I was, I was pretty sure I would have a heart attack by forty (I am now 41, and my heart is doing grand, though there are other issues caused by long periods of ongoing stress).
But if you are a teacher reading this, these facts alone will not help you. Knowing you are not alone might. On Radio Two today, Scott Mills talked about his mental health and shared clips from Lewis Capaldi and others. I am in school every week. There is not a week that goes by that the subject of mental health does not come up. But often, it is talked about in hushed tones. There is still a stigma attached to it. That is why I am sharing my story and telling you that you are not alone. I am here with you. We are all in this together.
I know the signs to look out for that tell me I am struggling. Often, it is not a low mood that hints at that for me. Instead, an urgency to get lots done, a bulging diary, and an inability to switch off let me know I am struggling.
The Teachers Resource shared some signs to look out for; these include
• Depressed, anxious, nervous or afraid
• Neglected or lonely
• Racing thoughts that can’t be switched off
• An increased sense of dread
• Worried about your health
• Uninterested in life
• Difficulty making decisions
• Worried and emotional
• Snapping at others
• Lack of concentration
• Eating too much or too little
• Consuming more alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs than before
If you are reading this and recognise yourself here, it can be scary to reach out for help. But you can do it. The NHS have a list of places – https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/mental-health/find-an-urgent-mental-health-helpline, and the EIS have resources as well https://www.eis.org.uk/member-support/hwresource.
But, you are more important than the job. You are more important than your class. You are the most important thing in your world.
There is no shame in accessing help. If you need time away, take it. See your GP and get signed off.
It is essential to know that you are not the problem; the system is. Since the mid-noughties, mental health in education has been a hot topic politically. Yet, the system has still not been fixed. Workloads continue to rise, and teachers are heading off sick in growing numbers. Yet, often, teachers are made to feel like they are the ones failing if they need time.
Part of this goes back to how we were trained. Most of us of a certain age remember the crit… indeed if we are being observed, we still often call it a crit. This is so negative. Making us focus on what we did wrong rather than what we did well not only impacts us in the classroom and at work but can also impact our personal lives.
We need to change the system from the start to the end, the top to the bottom. We need to create a system where teachers feel nurtured – as only then can they adequately nurture the children in their care.
In many stressful professions, there is an expectation, often a requirement, that professionals participate in reflective supervision as it supports their health and wellbeing. We do not have that in education. In 2019, Barnardo’s Scotland asked whether teachers could benefit from this. I suggest that yes and that it is desperately needed. They said, “If teachers are struggling with their own mental health, how can they be expected to support the children who rely on them the most?” 9.
If you are reading this and want to share your experiences with me, or hear more about mine, please feel free to email me – firstname.lastname@example.org . No-one should ever be alone.