'To improve the mental health of young people, we should start by tackling stress among teachers'

23rd November 2015 at 17:28
Teacher mental health
There is a danger that the stress experienced by school staff could be passed on to their students, writes one mental health expert

Some things, it is said, cannot be taught. I actually happen to believe that most things can be taught, or at least enhanced through the act of teaching, but it would be better if some things didn’t need to be. 

For example, a so-called "happiness lesson", while arguably a valuable addition to the PSHE spectrum if handled in the right way, would be rendered largely unnecessary had not huge swathes of time been cut from the curriculum which was once devoted to activities which naturally make children happy, like sport, arts and music. But I digress….

Some things are better gleaned by osmosis. Children tend to be more well-mannered if they spend time in an educational environment where people are naturally respectful of one another. Similarly, studies suggest that young people are much more likely to show symptoms of good body image if they have parents who are also confident in their own skin. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, as it’s essentially common sense. I guess I’m just setting out my stall because, unsurprisingly enough, I believe the same blueprint can be applied to mental wellbeing.

There are certain triggers which almost always result in a mental health issue – sustained bullying, for example. Another of these is stress. When stress is both chronic and regular it has been linked to a number of mental health ailments, including but not limited to depression, anxiety and memory loss. Stress is also contagious. The presence or absence of just one or two severely stressed colleagues can dramatically change the culture of a working environment.

Other than nurses, I struggle to think of a group of professionals whose day-to-day existence is more conducive to stress than teachers.

The media predominantly portrays teaching as a jammy gig, characterised by clocking off at 3pm on the dot, enjoying six weeks of unencumbered holiday every summer and becoming crazed with power to the extent that the urge to enforce completely nonsensical health and safety rules which spoil everyone’s fun becomes insatiable.

Anyone who is a teacher or knows one understands this to be utter hogwash, fuelled by an agenda which (either inexplicably or not, depending on your politics) desires to portray anyone who works in the public sector as overpaid and work shy.

I’d defy any teacher not to be at least a little stressed in this climate of contemptuous suspicion, when faced with increasingly narrow targets, long hours and the expectation that they will take on more and more responsibilities which fall outside the remit of their job description. And it is inevitable that the stress that is being generated amongst teachers will impact on their students.

Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that if the goal is to improve the mental health of young people in the UK, we should begin by giving more focus and resources to improving the mental health of their teachers?

I’ve been visiting schools since late 2007. With each passing year the teachers I have met have told me they are expected to do more and more to provide a network of pastoral support and emotional first aid for their pupils. There is no doubt in my mind that teachers are fast becoming the primary mental healthcare giver to an entire generation of children and adolescents. But who will look after them?

It’s a question I’ll be taking to the Department for Education during my next visit and I’d welcome any thoughts you might have on the issue in the meantime, dear readers (@natashadevonMBE on Twitter).

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion

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