Until 7 November 2018, stress and depression were things that happened to other people.
I’d seen strung out colleagues, angry and tearful because of work pressure, but I thought of myself as different.
Born with higher levels of resilience, perhaps.
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In 14 years, I’d risen through the ranks to become assistant headteacher and director of sixth form at a good comprehensive school, and I thought I had the best job in the school.
I threw myself into the role, taking on more and more projects; I was coordinating an International Baccalaureate application, our whole-school provision for more-able students, running a gardening club, and priding myself on my quick responses to every email. There was no challenge that I couldn’t overcome.
But all was not well. For months I’d been getting increasingly anxious about routine tasks: meetings with parents, interviews with underperforming students, and speaking in front of people.
I wasn’t eating properly and found it hard to switch off: the slightest problem or negative thought buzzed around my head constantly. I was distant at home and easily agitated.
My wife often pointed out that at the dinner table I was there but not present, staring into space, my mind elsewhere.
A bad patch?
My descent into what I would later learn was depression was slow and inconsistent. I knew that I wasn’t quite right, but dismissed it as “one of those things”. A bad patch.
On 7 November 2018, that bad patch became a crisis. Things had descended to such an extent that, triggered by a simple mistake at work, I suffered a nervous breakdown.
The next day I went to the doctor. The appointment was awful. I was so ashamed, I had to write down my symptoms because I refused to verbalise them.
Despite the tears, I was still genuinely shocked to hear a diagnosis of depression, and was reluctant to accept medication. My belief that a mental health issue was something that didn't couldn’t to me was a powerful one.
I was reluctant to take the medication, but I’d never been so happy to be signed off for two weeks. Something had snapped. I hated the job. I wanted out as soon as possible.
I resented my colleagues and largely detested the students. The notion of even liking the job seemed alien – like the person who did enjoy it was someone else.
Two weeks turned into five months. I simply wasn't well enough to return. I looked for other jobs but couldn’t find anything I liked that paid a similar salary.
I knew that financially, I’d have to return, but my love for the job had gone. It felt like my relationship with teaching had reached a bitter end, and I felt trapped.
Luckily, those around me were not so quick to write me off. Colleagues were hugely supportive: inviting me in for coffee and no-pressure-to-return chats, arranging and paying for counselling, keeping in touch.
They looked at my crippling workload and were ruthless in their streamlining. My wife encouraged me to exercise more, get back out into the garden, and overhauled my diet. I received support from a Buddhist centre and learned how to meditate. Eventually, after a false start and a phased return, I found myself back in the classroom.
Making a difference
I've been back for a couple of months now, and I want to be there. Genuinely. I wouldn’t say that I’m cured, but I’m learning to manage my condition through talking, meditating, and reminding myself why I chose to teach in the first place.
Like many others, I wanted to make a difference, and so I made a pledge to reconnect with that desire to help those who need it most.
I also started reading books about education. I’d never been one to read education books before – I was far too busy – but reading work by Daisy Christodoulou, Daniel Willingham, Barak Rosenshine and Doug Lemov proved to be challenging and inspiring. It made me want to get back into the classroom and adapt my practice, and that’s what I’m doing.
So what has this experience taught me? I’ve learned that being the one who says yes to everything isn’t helpful. That allowing your workload to spiral, and giving every hour to the profession will make you ill. That mental illness can affect anyone, even me.
If my experience rings alarm bells for you, or for someone you know, reach out. Even if it seems like an impossible task. There are people who will listen, and who will help.
For me, it has been an extremely hard road to recovery, but I am grateful that it happened, and to those around me who made that recovery possible. Stress and depression happened to me – and I’m no longer ashamed of that.
Jonathan Lane is assistant principal and director of sixth form at Wyedean School in Gloucestershire