A few years ago, as I was nearing the end of a pretty uneventful and forgettable training year, I had to do the one thing that had never been asked of me before in my career: an occupational health assessment.
Up until then, I had signed on many dotted lines about my fitness and general health. But this was different. This was the first time anyone had asked me to reveal the status of my mental health.
In recent years, with the increase in conversations about mental health and the stigma that surrounds it, it is easy to understand why we as a society might believe that we have evolved in our thinking, and that nowadays it is acceptable to talk about mental health issues.
After all, we are regularly bombarded with bus campaigns and TV advertisements, which create the impression that we have in fact changed.
In reality, however, the taboo surrounding mental health remains the same.
Those who have mental health disorders are often judged much more harshly than others. Every action is pulled apart and microscopically deconstructed. As a result, people often keep tight-lipped about what is really going on behind closed doors.
So why did the teaching world want this specific assessment? Did they really care? Had they managed the impossible and actually evolved?
My course leaders assured us that the assessment was simply so that reasonable adjustments could be put into place, to enable teachers to work at their very best.
Nonetheless, I was petrified.
'It could always be worse'
So I was fully aware of how people react to such revelations: shock, uncertainty, fear. Smugly telling me it could always be worse.
But, all in all, I was fine. I was used to pushing my burden uphill, and had become rather good at it.
But, as I sat there, I wondered: do I sign on the dotted line, inevitably revealing to my colleagues that I suffer from mental health illnesses? Do I admit that, yes, I am indeed a “crazy person”?
Or should I mute it? Pretend all is well in the ever-changing microclimate of my mind?
I decided that I wanted to start my new vocation openly and honestly. So I revealed all. I signed on that dotted line.
A few days later, I received a phone call from a very brisk lady, who had concluded that I wasn’t cut out for the pressures of teaching.
All my achievements thus far – academia, successful prior career – did not matter. All of that paled in the face of my mental health reality.
I was no longer an individual who had overcome many obstacles. All she saw was that I was risky business, you know, being mental and all that.
It took several phone calls and letters from medical professionals and my course leaders, writing about my outstanding performance throughout the course, before Lady Brisk was forced to admit that maybe I was fine after all.
Tasting the bitterness
But for me it was a little too late. I had already tasted that bitterness that lay in the underbelly of the education world.
So it came as no surprise when I discovered that teachers often decided against revealing mental health issues during the occupational health assessment. It was better to do that, I was told by one teacher, than face scrutiny and judgement.
I was warned that teachers who had revealed mental health disorders, even if it was something manageable like stress or anxiety, had to wave goodbye to basic decorum. Gone were the days of simply having a bad day.
Now, that same bad day suggested one could not handle the pressures of teaching. Every lesson, every choice, was fair game for all to dissect and comment on.
But, worst of all, as I kept my mouth shut and observed this strange new world, I saw what really happened to those teachers who had done the brave thing and sought help: under the guise of safeguarding, these teachers had to go through the daily humiliation of proving they were not crazy. That they were safe. And students were safe under them.
It was a horrible Catch-22 trap that I had no desire to be caught in.
Over several years, different doctors had told me the same thing: mental health is the same as physical health. Sometimes things don’t work and need to be fixed.
So why couldn’t the teaching world see that? Why did this world, full of educated minds, still hold on to outdated attitudes towards mental health disorders? Why couldn’t they be the forefront of change?
I didn’t get my answers then. And I don’t think I ever will.
When it comes to mental health, it seems that teachers are shoved under the microscope too quickly, dissected too roughly and then judged too harshly.
So, next time you’re in the staffroom and hear some whispers about Mr So-and-So having a bit of a cray-cray wobble, ask yourself this: if that teacher had a broken hip, would your treatment be any different?
Or, better yet, be the change you want to see, and tell those whisperers to mind their own business.
The author is a secondary English teacher in South West London