This is going to be a long one, so make yourself comfy…
This is such a taboo subject generally, but in the past few years its become more and more acceptable to talk about it. Mental health. Automatically, one goes straight to depression and, while this is a huge proportion of mental health issues, there are many others that can exist without it, but also often alongside it.
Mental health in teaching is something which I am really passionate about. I think it’s what drove me to want to become the health and well-being coordinator for my school. I’m not naive though – I know it’ll take more than a few well-meaning questionnaires and some staff socials to tackle the issue. Despite this, recognising, understanding and consequently improving mental health is still something which is top of my priority list.
I am positive my passion for this drives from my own personal experiences. I experience anxiety myself (I don’t like saying “suffer”, it sounds too negative). Whilst it’s only become particularly prominent, to the point where it’s altered how I carry out my day to day life, in the past two years, I believe I’ve always had an anxious personality, which has pre-disposed me to experiencing the feelings and emotions I have done/still do. It’s something which can be caused by many things: social situations of which I have little knowledge or control over can spark it off, anytime I feel like something is out of my control and it leads to serious overthinking. The way it can affect me is mentally (the overthinking), physically (headaches, dry-heaving, panic attacks) and generally makes me feel drained, overwhelmed and tired. At its peak, I would probably have a few anxiety attacks a week and I would feel constantly exhausted. I lost 3 stone and just didn’t feel myself. It was a time of great change, for numerous reasons, not to mention I was smack-bang in the middle of my NQT year. It was at this time I think I realised I’d hit breaking point, and it was at this time that I reached out for help.
I’m aware this all sounds a bit “woe is me” and, while I’m determined to be honest about things, I’m happy to say that I am getting better. By no means has it disappeared and I think anxiety will always be a part of me, but the depressive episodes have passed and I feel generally more positive. What I find most interesting about this though, is the link between my mental health and my job. As you most likely know if you are reading this blog, teaching is HARD. There are lots of links between teaching and poor mental health and I wanted to find out why this is. I sent out a plea on Twitter and was overwhelmed by the response. Here’s what you had to say:
Interestingly, a lot of the people who replied said their mental health wasn’t caused directly by teaching, but was more exacerbated by an already underlying condition. There is no doubt that there are hundreds of jobs which are stressful, but it cannot be denied that teaching is incredibly stressful. Wasn’t it Dr Tina Boogren who said “teachers make more minute by minute decisions than brain surgeons…and that is why you’re going home exhausted every day.”? Apparently an average of 4 a minute. I thought about this when I was actually at work the other day and it is so true! They may not all be life changing decisions, but it is still something which has a cause and effect and, therefore, you need to consider. Also, someone who would like to remain anonymous said that anxiety and depression can become harder to cope with as a teacher because you have to be in this constant state of “up”, smiley and happy and like nothing is wrong. It is really quite inhuman but it can be exhausting. On the flip-side, I used to find this constant requirement to be “OK” a saviour, as I had no choice but to push my emotions aside and be everything I could for my children.
Another common thread with mental health and teaching was the colleagues you have around you. An anonymous replier said that her condition was “exacerbated by poor leadership,” and someone else said they had “almost no support from SLT.” The people who said they have improved their mental health said they had “supportive colleagues” and “an incredibly human leadership team.” I completely agree with this. I work with the most wonderful people, many of whom have become close friends, and I know full well I would not have got through the past year without them. The impact of their constant support, with teaching advice, personal advice and often just a shoulder to cry on has been immeasurable.
Of course, the workload has to be a factor. It is a nationwide issue which, at the moment, has no real solution. Someone mentioned that “it’s a really big issue” and I agree. When going into teaching, you’re told the workload will be tough but until you’re in it, you have no idea. I think a huge factor which also influences mental health is your overall personal situation. My colleague and good friend always says: “the thing with teaching is this, if the work is tough, but your home life is OK, it’s cope able. It’s when there’s issues in both that you really start to fall apart.” And she’s right. Should the smallest thing come out of line in your personal life, it makes it very difficult to juggle all the balls.
Sophie (@_MissieBee) made a very interesting comment which bucked this trend and I found it fascinating as I totally related! She said “I actually found school a comfort, as it would keep my mind busy.” I totally understand what she was saying. I’ve never admitted this to anyone, but I would stay ridiculously late at school because the thought of going home scared me for many reasons, and I’d find my mind was empty and that is when the overthinking would kick in. She also said “I would dread Fridays as it meant the weekend was approaching – and that meant nothing to keep my mind occupied.” I completely related to this and almost felt a relief I wasn’t the only one! I’d constantly be around people who were so excited for the weekend (“I can’t wait to spend time with my children,” or “Me and the husband are off for the weekend,”) but I used to dread them. The holidays were worse. I can remember the Easter holidays being particularly bad, probably the worse I’ve ever felt. Thankfully, I now look forward to my weekends more but that feeling is still there.
I guess it’s inevitable that, as in any profession, people are going to have mental health concerns. Instead of hiding away from it, or being ashamed I think it’s important to face up to it, talk about it and understand it is part of who you are. It doesn’t define you, but accepting it’s there is important. So how do we deal with it? Medication is one of the obvious choices, although a very personal one. Many people who DM’d me recommended therapy/counselling and I can vouch for this being very helpful, although it isn’t for everyone. @MissHoward4 said “yoga and mediation” which I also agree with! Many of you simply said taking time out for yourself, which is easier said than done, especially in your NQT year, but something which I’ve managed better so far this year. I have come to the conclusion that I am one human being with only so many hours in a day and I stand by that! Other common techniques included getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water and exercise. Again, all easier said than done but proven to help.
For me, it has been really therapeutic and quite overwhelming to get such a response to this topic – although quite sad realising there are so many other people going through this in and out of the profession. I guess it is about understanding you are not alone and there are always people there to help you. I can only hope and wish that if you are going through it you manage to find some acceptance and learn to control it, like I am in the process of doing now.
I thought I’d leave this post with a lovely comment my tutor from University DM’d me earlier today in response to my initial tweet, as I think it will apply to many of you reading this too. He said “stress and anxiety are common in the teaching profession, but I hope you make a stand and keep going. You are a natural and the children need you.” And they need all of you too!
Take care, share this post and share the love. You are all amazing!
PS Thank you enormously to every single person who messaged me following my tweet and for letting me use your comments in this post. xxxxx