A health warning

9th March 2012 at 00:00

I don't usually get full marks on exams, but I've just blitzed an online test. Sadly, it's not something to celebrate. According to the NHS depression self-assessment test, it's "very likely" I'm suffering from "some form of depression". I guess that shouldn't be surprising. For teachers, depression comes with the job, along with a second-hand laptop and a passcode for the photocopier.

The NHS questions asked me if I suffered from any of the following: low self-esteem? Tick. Tearfulness? Tick. Irritability? Tick. Feelings of guilt and despair? Tick. Disturbed sleep patterns? That's easy. Since Macbeth gets more REM sleep than your average teacher, I gave that one a double tick and a silvery stick-on star. My results are a shocking indictment of how teaching can damage your health.

Lately it's been getting worse. Last week I averaged five-and-a-half hours' sleep a night. I ping awake at 5am and immediately think about work. Within a few minutes my heart thunders into life and I face a stampeding herd of my own inadequacies. I'm overwhelmed by all the things I've failed to achieve, and within seconds I'm drowning in seas of unmarked books, unmet targets and unfinished schemes of work. I try clutching at a passing branch that has "you're still a good mother" scratched on its bark. Then I remember that my son's blazer is covered in yoghurt and that he missed out on a school trip because I didn't return the permission slip. And suddenly the black clouds descend.

Having watched the illness destroy my mum, I'm aware of its usual arc. It begins with distress and ends in despair. You experience a numbing down of pleasures; you avoid people and social situations because they bring more anxiety than relief. Other people's happiness just benchmarks your own misery. Then towards the end, even your own family becomes white noise; a meaningless static in the background of your life. That's when you realise you are on your own, with no reason to stay alive.

When it comes to dealing with depression, school leaders have their heads in the sand. They'll happily monitor our emails, performance and progression but sidestep any research that would incriminate them in our failing mental health. Last year, it was reported that the suicide rate among teachers had nearly doubled, with government targets, unmanageable paperwork and working weeks of 50-plus hours blamed as possible causes.

Last month's inquest on David Charlesworth, the 43-year-old science teacher who set fire to himself in a car park, adds to this gloomy picture. His wife told the hearing that "he felt under pressure to make sure the children got the grades", and more chillingly, that he felt that "the pressure was only his". It's a feeling many of us share. Success has many fathers; D grades are our own.

Teaching is a notoriously stressful career and Michael Gove's plans to introduce performance-related pay will only make things worse. The only healthy alternative is to find another job. But since the government's workfare scheme has kids pushing supermarket trolleys around for free, "doing a Ken Barlow" is no longer an option.

Depression is the elephant in the classroom. It's teetering on a spangled rostrum, waving one leg in the air. So when Gove makes his move on teachers' pay and conditions, let's hope he focuses on improving "conditions" and stops teaching from becoming such a dying career.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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