Mental health: What to do when you reach crisis point

At a time of unbelievable strain on the profession, it's understandable that many school staff are struggling with mental health issues. Here’s how to manage them
9th January 2021, 8:00am
Zofia Niemtus

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Mental health: What to do when you reach crisis point

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/mental-health-what-do-when-you-reach-crisis-point
Coronavirus: Protecting Children's Mental Health During Lockdown

The sudden school closures last year. Months of online teaching; a high-pressure return to the classroom, amid worry about infection; back to remote learning at a day's notice: it's no surprise that some teachers may feel that they are heading for breaking point. 

They're not alone. The Mental Health Foundation is currently working with four universities on a long-term study of how the pandemic is affecting people's mental health in the UK, and researchers report a "slow decline in the population's ability to cope with the stress of the pandemic". In April, it was at 73 per cent and by late November it had dropped to 62 per cent. 

"My guess is that it's going to reduce further and I think teachers may well be a more extreme example of that," says Jane Caro, a psychotherapist and former teacher, now working as programme lead for families, children and young people at the Mental Health Foundation.

"Teachers are managing stress all the time, but when you're getting to a crisis point and not balancing that anymore, it means you're not dealing with the stress and not dispersing it, so it becomes overwhelming."

So, how can you manage your mental health when you feel things starting to slip?

Be aware of your body 

When stress levels are high, take stock of what's happening to your body, Caro advises. 

"Always look out for any disruption to your basic functioning," she says. "There are key indicators to look for in terms of issues: eating, sleeping, relationships." 

Keeping an eye on alcohol and caffeine intake and your diet can have a huge effect on wellbeing, she continues, as well as setting and sticking to routines for exercise and sleep.

Try to stay in the present

"Hearing talk about how we might have restrictions next winter was really unhelpful," Caro continues. "It plummets everyone into a sense of complete despair. When things feel overwhelming, try to break them down into more manageable chunks. Just focus, for now, on the day ahead or the week ahead, and plan things to look forward to."

Because looking at the long term can add to your stress at the moment, concentrate instead on small, daily things, such as what you're going to eat for dinner or what film you might watch later, she says. 

"But it's also worth remembering the things that are going to change for the better, one way or the other. The seasons will change and it will become spring. Having those kinds of things to look forward to can put this in perspective, so you're not thinking that this is it now, this is the way we live forever." 

Talk to (the right) people

When the darker feelings come, don't bottle them up, Caro goes on. "Sometimes, just acknowledging that you're struggling can help, whereas if you hide those feelings, it's like a magnifying glass, it's going to make things a lot worse." 

Whether it's a colleague or line manager, or someone from your personal life, the key is to make sure that these conversations make your load feel lighter rather than heavier, which can be tricky when speaking to other teachers in similarly difficult circumstances, she continues.  

"For some people, those conversations [with stressed colleagues] can be helpful, but others can feel dragged down by them," she says. "It's similar to the advice we give about social media: if you're following a particular person and every time you look, you come away feeling worse about yourself, think about whether you want to be following them.

"A sense of connection is really important and if that sharing with other staff makes you feel connected, then great. It's about being mindful of the conversations you're having and choosing to talk to people that you find personally supportive." 

Talk to your GP

"If you feel yourself getting to a crisis point, your first point of call should be your GP," Caro goes on. "Most consultations are being done online now and there is an increasing awareness of mental health. GPs will be very aware of the situation and just how difficult it is."

It may be that they are able offer advice about changes that could be made, she says, or you could be offered medication, or some kind of talking therapy, many of which - such as CBT - are now being offered online. 

If things get really bad...

"We know that things can escalate quickly and, from a safeguarding point of view, it's really important to stress that if you are feeling highly distressed, and particularly if you're having thoughts of harming yourself, there are people out there," Caro says. 

She recommends reaching out to organisations such as the following. 

  • Samaritans: call 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org.uk 
  • Shout Crisis Text Line: call 85258 
  • Mind: call 0300 123 3393 or email info@mind.org.uk 
  • Alternatively, call the NHS on 111 and explain that you're in a mental health crisis. 

The Mental Health Foundation has more information available online, including more advice on looking after your mental health as a teacher and general advice on managing mental health during the pandemic.

Download 10 ways to embed a culture of wellbeing at your school

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