Depressed and anxious, yet no one cares

21st October 2005 at 01:00
I was stunned by a recent statement from a psychiatrist. He was talking about his work and let drop the news that 50 per cent of his caseload is made up of teachers. Fifty per cent. No other occupation group comes close.

The teachers he meets are different and from all categories: old and young, primary and secondary, male and female, state and independent, heads and class teachers. What they have in common is that all of them are committed to their jobs. All are enthusiasts and have given time and effort above and beyond the call of duty. The result is that all are absent from school, suffering from illnesses in the spectrum of stress, anxiety and clinical depression.

I was shocked. I wondered how many other psychiatrists could tell similar stories. At a time when we need every skilled teacher we can find, how can our system allow so many of the committed simply to fall by the wayside?

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. Stress-related absence has been growing for years and its cost is reckoned to be more than pound;43 million per annum. Many of us have known colleagues who have quietly disappeared as if they were victims of a Stalinist purge. Their crime? Being unable to cope due to increasing and unresolved stress.

It's the "unresolved" bit that is important. The Scottish Executive may trumpet its expectation that every school should be "health promoting" - a fashionable concoction of healthy eating, reduced bullying and raised self-esteem - but we don't hear much about promoting the health of teachers, on whom the health-promoting school depends.

Are our leaders happy about absence costs of pound;43 million? About the disruption to pupils? Or the attack on attainment? What about the low level of applications for headteachers' posts or the distress caused to teachers'

families? The self-satisfied silence of our leaders suggests that either they don't care or they are ignorant of the acute levels of stress in the profession.

We have no national initiative to combat teacher stress - unlike England - but various local schemes are cited as evidence of concern. Unfortunately, they can be third-rate with a whiff of education authorities covering their backs. Engaging general counsellors is not effective if they lack knowledge and experience of working conditions in schools and, of course, client confidentiality means that employers never know about the causes of stress cited in interviews.

A report from Teacher Support Scotland describes these approaches in more elegant language: "Their purpose appears more defensive than proactive."

Even the superior option of trained teacher welfare officers emphasises a deficit model where stress is the product of an individual's weaknesses.

Time-management, assertiveness, use of praise and class organisation are areas all of us do well to review from time to time, but teachers engaging with serious stress are well past the stage of needing to vary the tone of their voices.

A bigger question needs to be addressed. If so many are suffering from stress-related illnesses, what are the weaknesses in the system which bring this about? As yet, our leaders do not admit to weaknesses. However, there may be an encouraging sign in a new project in Fife and Renfrewshire schools that aims to link organisational well-being to alleviating stress.

The Executive's fanfare document about Scotland's educational future is entitled Ambitious, Excellent Schools. Teacher Support Scotland has counter-challenged with its document Creating the Conditions for Ambitious, Excellent Schools. It states: "If Scotland is to create the ambitious, excellent schools it desires and needs, the well-being of teachers must be addressed."

The message cannot be clearer - but will it be heard?

My psychiatrist friend's caseload will be an effective indicator of success.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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