Returning to teaching after depression

Although many teachers manage to weather the ups and downs of teaching life, some find it a little more difficult and can drift into depression, if unsupported. Diagnosed depression will require time out of the classroom to recover, and eventually a return will need to be planned. For teachers returning to school after a period of poor mental health this can seem like an ominous task but there is a variety of support available.

Union involvement
Better renowned for their work around better pay and conditions, unions can also step in to ensure that there is proper rehabilitation for staff returning from long-term sick leave. The thought of returning to work terrified one head of department until he was advised to contact his union by a teacher colleague. “I wasn’t sure what my union could do, but they were incredibly supportive. They helped me arrange a phased return to work. The school agreed and allowed me to build up from a couple of days a week just classroom teaching. Being able to ease myself back in really helped to rebuild my confidence. Without the union’s help and the understanding and support of my school, I’m not sure I would have gone back at all,” he says.

Line manager support
The headteacher can be one of the first people to notice if you are displaying signs of depression and is key to ensuring that you are given appropriate support when you return. One headteacher overheard children talking about their teacher ‘losing it’ in the classroom, and approached the teacher at the end of day to find out if everything was ok. The following day, the teacher was signed off sick with depression for a month. After GP treatment and recommendations from occupational health, the teacher returned to work. A ‘back to work’ meeting was arranged with the headteacher. “I am sure the teacher was as apprehensive as I was about that meeting and just as relieved afterwards at how well it actually went. We agreed that he would come back to work on a part-time basis and take a younger non-exam year group,” he says. A daily meeting to offer support with the teacher’s head of year was set up for the first two weeks of his return.

Occupational health
All local authorities have procedures for managing sickness absence and if an absence extends beyond a certain amount of time, the employee is referred to the borough’s occupational health department. Their job is to find out how you are, if you are fit for work and if you need any support to enable you to carry out your job. But it’s not just for people who are in the throes of an illness. One teacher, on recommendation from her headteacher, decided to have regular meetings with an occupational health adviser because she felt as if things were beginning to get on top of her. “I was having problems sleeping and kept getting constant headaches,” says the teacher. “I spoke to my headteacher about the problem and she arranged an appointment with an occupational health advisor. I feel really supported and back on top of things now. I dread to think what would have happened if I had left it any longer to get help,” she says.

What to tell parents and pupils
“I spent hours wondering what I should tell the children, and how I should respond to the parents if they asked me any questions,” says Jacqui Danielle, secondary school teacher. “If I told the parents I was off with depression, they’d think I was loopy and worry about the welfare of their children. Luckily, the headteacher had already spoken to the parents and the children. She told them I had been unwell for a while but I was much better now and ready to return to the classroom. She didn’t go into details and the parents didn’t press for information as, I guess, they knew it was a personal matter,” she says.

Disability Discrimination Act
Employers cannot discriminate against an employee on the grounds of a disabling mental health condition. They will need to make suitable arrangement to meet the needs of an employee whose mental health condition lasts longer than 12 months. Provisions can include any of the following:

- Flexible working hours
- 10 per cent reduction of teaching hours for planning, assessment and preparation
- Additional class support
- A mentor
- Removal of additional or extra-curricular responsibilities

Useful organisations:
Teacher support network
Association of teachers and lecturers

Need more advice? Visit the Teachers’ survival guide