Does teaching take a toll on mental health?

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Teach First offers psychological support to stressed trainees

The country's largest provider of new teachers has started organising psychological support for trainees because it is concerned that classroom pressures risk triggering mental health problems.

Teach First, which is training 1,700 new teachers this year, has set up a partnership with mental health charity Mind and is offering one-to-one sessions with a psychologist for its participants.

Sam Freedman, director of research and impact at Teach First, said: "I've actually been quite surprised, quite disturbed, at how many of our participants find it incredibly stressful, and that can turn into mental health problems.

"We've put a lot of quite specific mindfulness and mental health training into our programmes now so we can support people through the first couple of terms of teaching.We are explicitly building it into our programme."

Teacher trainees identified as being vulnerable to mental health problems are being offered up to 10 hours with psychologists (see panel, left). They use cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness to help them cope with the stress of teaching.

Fundamental problems

A survey of more than 1,300 teachers by the Teacher Support Network in September found that nearly half (45 per cent) had been depressed in the past two years. The charity, which runs a helpline for teachers, says that mental health problems in the profession have increased over the past five years.

Sir Cary Cooper (pictured, above left), professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester's business school and a former government adviser on well-being, told TES that of the 80 occupations he had studied during his research, teaching was among the most stressful. "The hours are long and antisocial, the workload is heavy and there is change for change's sake from various governments," he said.

Sir Cary said it was "useful" to offer support to trainee teachers, but added that "the fundamentals that cause stress will still be there".

Teacher Support Network's chief executive Julian Stanley praised the Teach First initiative. He said that when the programme began in 2002 there appeared to be an assumption that its trainees "were high-flyers and would be able to cope" with the pressure.

"A significant number of newly qualified teachers and experienced teachers have mental health symptoms and we think that's got worse in the last four to five years," he said.

"But teachers want to be seen as coping. They don't want to look like they're not at full strength. So when they finally ask for help, they're pretty desperate."

Common causes of stress among teachers included inspections, assessment and poor behaviour from pupils, he added.

Last year, education secretary Nicky Morgan said that she did not want children to be taught by teachers who were "too stressed and too anxious to do the job well" and launched her Workload Challenge to alleviate the pressure.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that demand had increased among teachers for help with "coping with stress and mental well-being".

"The pressure has been building over the past few years and it's coming to a head," she said. "Because there's such an emphasis on performing well, schools can be very unforgiving and lonely places to be feeling stressed and vulnerable."

Key concerns

Psychologist Dr Lindsay Joyce has tried to identify the key concerns of the Teach First trainees she works with, she tells TES.

"Some participants have previous issues they haven't dealt with and something about the classroom experience triggers that," she says.

"Some participants haven't experienced much challenge in their lives. They've been academic and have flown through school and university so it's the first time they've faced challenges, and they need teaching around the skills to deal with that."

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