Here's how it feels to return to school after being signed off with depression

Depression saw me signed off work for weeks. But returning to work brought its own challenges - here's what I wish I could have told people



I misjudged the traffic on my first day back after being signed off with depression, so I was ridiculously early.

I sat in the staffroom waiting for my colleagues to arrive. 

My suit jacket felt tight and unnatural; I'd not worn work clothes for weeks.

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Suddenly I felt the all-too-familiar burn of worry and anxiety in my chest. What would people be thinking of me?

Here are the things I wish I could have let them know:

It's fine to ask how I'm doing...

...but be ready not to like the answer. Am I OK? No, not really. I’m up, I’m dressed and I’m at work. But being well enough to come into work, and being well are different things.

Try not to be shocked if I give you an honest answer. You did ask, after all. And it’s OK to reply with "that sounds really shit". Because, let’s face it, it is.

The chit-chat of a staffroom is a big part of feeling normal again, and feeling excluded from those conversations because people are too afraid to ask how you are can make the return harder.

I'm worried you think I'm faking it

There’s no way to show the pain of depression; no cast on my arm, no network of scars. When I got back to school, there were times when I wished I'd broken a leg instead because at least then it would have been clear.

I could feel a subtext when certain colleagues spoke to me: that I just couldn’t hack the job, that I was lazy or weak. 

If you find yourself in the same position with a colleague who has had depression, try to put your judgement aside.

You're probably not an expert on mental health

I know you mean well. But I don't need to hear about how your Auntie Jane took fish oil tablets, tried mindfulness for three weeks and took up running and then her depression vanished completely. 

That's great for your Auntie Jane. But just because it worked for her, it doesn’t mean it's going to work for me.

Don’t presume that you already know my experience. I appreciate when people want to empathise, but if I’m suffering from insomnia, telling me you got an awful night’s sleep too just makes me think you don't know what insomnia is.

I'm not sure what I need sometimes

I dread the question: "What can we do to help?" 

If I knew how to help myself, then I would. Instead, this question grinds away at my self-confidence as I self-scrutinise again and again.

What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why do I need extra support when others function perfectly well?

Instead, being told that it’s OK to not know what help I want – but that it’s there when I do – eases my self doubt. It’s OK to not know.

When the fog of depression is clouding my thoughts, I will most likely feel as if nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever alleviate the pain. But these feelings pass.

There are days when I can articulate the help I would like, and knowing that I can ask for it then is a huge relief.

Being signed off wasn't the easy option

The times when I have been signed off from work haven't been a nice break or an extra holiday. And all the work-related stress that was there before I left hasn’t magically dissipated just because I’ve been away for half a term.

I worry that the problems I left behind are still there. Or that they will be worse because I’ve had time away from them instead of resolving them.

I worry about the extra work I’ve put on colleagues, and I worry about the extra work I’m going to have to do to catch up. 

Coming back to work doesn't mean the Etch-a-Sketch is wiped clean. It just means I’ve had time to try and get myself mentally well. But there isn't a magic cure for depression.

The writer is a secondary school teacher in South-East England

The Education Support Partnership has a 24hr call and text helpline for telephone support and counselling UK-wide: 08000 562 561 Txt: 07909 341229

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