One in 10 headteachers are turning to drugs to combat stress, according to a survey of Hampshire primary heads.
The survey of 180 primary heads - one third of the county's total - found that some 40 per cent were affected by stress, causing symptoms such as irritability and exhaustion. One in 10 were taking prescribed anti-depressants or sedatives, most commonly Prozac.
Hampshire has introduced Headline, a 24-hour stress counselling service for heads, which offers immediate access to hospital psychologists without the need for GP referral.
The study was carried out by Ted Winfield, himself a former Hampshire head who retired on grounds of ill-health, as research for his doctorate on stress among primary heads.
No national figures are available on the proportion of heads suffering from stress. However, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the evidence of stress and stress-related illness was there for all to see in the number of heads retiring early, many on grounds of ill-health.
In the past academic year, 520 out of the 1,280 heads who retired early in England did so for ill-health.
The Hampshire survey was "very worrying indeed", Mr Hart said. It contained a message for the Government, who talked about providing "pressure and encouragement" in equal measure. " Stress expert Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, said he was "not surprised" by Mr Winfield's findings.
He added that the headteacher's role had changed enormously over the past 10-15 years and heads now faced truly managerial pressures: running a budget, being in the public eye over league-table placings, dealing with Office for Standards in Education inspections (and the threat of hit squads) and trying to manage teachers who were themselves under stress.
"They feel they're out in the open for anyone to take a pot-shot at," he said. Heads needed some kind of local support network to share good practice and provide informal counselling.
In an interview with The TES, Mr Winfield said the introduction of local management had destroyed some of the traditional support networks for heads.
He said that Hampshire had "axed" the local education officers who used to support heads and that advisers and inspectors were all contracted to do OFSTED inspections. "There is no one that a head can ring up and talk to for advice without someone saying, 'That'll be Pounds 36 an hour'," he said.
Hampshire says it has been in the forefront of moves to support its headteachers. It restored the system of local education officers - now called area education officers - following local government reorganisation in April.
In addition, each school has an "attached inspector", who visits once a year and can give advice to heads at other times. "OFSTED work takes a minority of our inspectors' time," said deputy education officer Andrew Seber.
There is also a county-backed headteachers' conference system, under which local groups of heads meet regularly, as well as informal mini-networks.
A survey last year found seven out of 10 hospital doctors suffered work-related stress. It has been estimated that job stress costs 10 per cent of the gross national product.
head survey, TES2 page 22