During 25 years working in NHS mental health services, the one professional group that I have seen more frequently than any other are teachers. With increasing workloads and more challenging pupils, teachers appear to have been placed under more stress with limited support, and this is leading to increased numbers experiencing common mental health problems.
A number of the teachers I have seen over my career in mental health have described poor levels of support by their management team and often cite bullying and an unsupportive work environment as adding to their difficulties. Along with other professions, teachers have identified support from occupational health services as inadequate and failing to address their issues. Even though stress is highlighted time and time again, no specific training is offered to trainee teaching staff on how to manage stress and common mental health problems. Minimal, often tokenistic, support is offered to qualified teachers.
Podcast: Adult education and mental health
It’s time we addressed the growing problem within our education system and offered teachers psychological interventions that are effective in preventing the development of mental health problems and managing them where problems already exist. Let’s make use of in-service or Inset days to equip all teachers with the tools to manage the demands that teaching brings – not just those who identify themselves to the leadership teams as having problems. This is especially important as we know people still don’t feel able to approach senior staff or occupational health services due to the stigma that mental health problems bring, no matter how much we try to reduce this.
So, how do we do this in a cost-effective, accessible and efficient way? Most importantly, we make it for everyone as part of their training, induction and ongoing CPD. We need the first level of mental health support to be for everyone, so people don’t need to self-select and feel that the spotlight is on them. I have found that the best method of delivering this first level of information about mental health is in an interactive workshop. Teaching staff are used to this format and when delivered by experienced practitioners it generates good discussion and sharing of information.
In our workshops, which we have delivered to further education staff in Scotland, people have been able to discuss stressors at work and at home, and the exercises we use give them new strategies and plans on how to manage these situations in the future. The workshops generate good discussions about support networks and the expectations that we have of ourselves that can prevent us from seeking help. A lot of the teachers I have spoken to identify how they feel out of their depth in supporting students' own mental health needs but as a result of the workshop feel better placed to identify issues and promote self-help strategies not only for themselves but for students as well.
So what about the feedback, how do the teaching staff rate the workshop? To date, the feedback has all been positive with people wanting more time to discuss mental health issues. Everyone felt comfortable talking, with no one feeling embarrassed or feeling under pressure. The teaching staff all rated the content and presentation of the workshop highly and valued it being delivered by practitioners with clinical knowledge and experience.
What next? What if people are already struggling and need more support than the first-level workshop? We have built a needs assessment into the workshop, and from that confidential assessment, we can see if there are other issues within the group. This could include problems with sleep or low self-esteem and we can then suggest targeted support which takes the format of a six-week course.
These courses can be offered flexibly after teaching hours, over lunch, on an evening or at the weekend. Again, these are delivered by expert practitioners who have extensive experience working clinically in the NHS. This is important as it gives people confidence knowing that the person in the room with them has expert level knowledge and can deal with anything that comes up during the courses.
So there are methods for us to support teaching staff that work and that people actually enjoy attending and rate highly. We need to make these available to all schools, colleges and universities and put teachers’ mental health higher in the priority list, because if we don’t, sick leave will increase - and so will pressure on the system.
Dr Fiona Murray is co-founder of Wellbeing for Working Lives. Her workshops are aimed at staff and students. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org