Pick the battles you can win

5th March 2004 at 00:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

My first shock when addressing a conference of primary school heads in Cambridgeshire was discovering how young they all looked. Their youth wasn't just physical; it was reflected in their incredible energy and passion for the care of their pupils. It soon became obvious that their main source of stress was trying to sort out all the problems in their pupils' lives, besides the educational ones. Teachers today are not just educationists but also social workers, family therapists and psychiatrists; new studies suggest one in five school-aged children has a clinically significant psychiatric disorder.

Self-preservation is high up the agenda for therapists in general, and psychiatrists in particular. We have a long tradition of considering how to survive until we reach retirement, doing the difficult work of shouldering deeply disturbed psychological and emotional conditions.

Not so the teachers I have met. Which is why I see an increasingly large number in my clinics. It seems those who need my services are those who care most for their pupils. Their psychological vulnerability lies in their inability to draw a personal boundary around what problems they will take on, and what they will ignore to retain their own sanity.

The Cambridgeshire heads were outraged when I suggested that not all the problems they faced could be solved. They seemed to equate knowing their own limits with betraying or abandoning their children.

The most difficult problems we face in our professional lives take up huge amounts of emotional and intellectual energy, which means, perhaps, the more easily solved problems get neglected; for teachers that means many issues that can improve children's lives become overlooked. Some psychiatrists suffer burn-out from taking on too much and not protecting themselves. If psychiatrists suffer - and we've had a lot of training in how to stay sane - how much more vulnerable is the average teacher likely to be? Remember, too, that there are few mental health professionals in today's NHS to dig you out from beneath the avalanche of social problems that hits you in the classroom. The best strategy is to prevent yourself being buried in the first place.

What is psychologically intriguing about the teachers who insist on attempting to solve their pupils' severe difficulties - despite the inability of the social services to help - is their feeling that to do otherwise would be like abandoning their own children. They see their pupils as a deeply embedded part of their identity. The boundaries between professional and private lives can become blurred in anyone passionate about their work. But, in my experience, no one who recovers from a serious nervous breakdown ever feels that battling against enormous odds makes the trauma "worthwhile". The uncomfortable message to the perfectionist in every wonderful teacher is that when faced with overwhelming pressures from work, revise your standards down to "just good enough".

Take a careful look at the stresses in your life now. Act to prevent yourself passing the point at which you feel in control of what you have to endure at work. The art of mental survival is to pick your battles and ensure at least a few are winnable. I've met many teachers who want to take on the world on behalf of their pupils but, as I usually meet them in my clinic, it shows this attitude is a sure-fire season ticket to the outpatients' department. This doesn't mean you should abandon your charges; just don't abandon yourself and your own mental health for their sake.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of Staying Sane: how to make your mind work for you, published by Bantam Press, pound;7.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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