Stress on the emotional landscape

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Are teachers suffering from institutional depression? Chris Bunting reports PAMELA Relf, a teacher at Middlefield primary school in Cambridgeshire, wrote last Christmas: "I am now finding the stress of my job too much. The pace of work and the long days are more than I can do. I would like my ashes to be scattered in the woods ..."

Shortly after leaving the note she drowned herself in the freezing River Ouse. Tragedies such as this happen every year to people working in every kind of profession and make little impact on the public consciousness.

But the special poignancy of her suicide has sparked growing awareness of the serious problems of anxiety and depression among teachers - particularly those who are either facing inspections or have just experienced one.

Other deaths have been linked to inspectors: the 33-year-old Cheshire teacher Janet Watson, who hanged herself last September after becoming terrified of getting a bad inspectors' report, and Birmingham teacher James Patton, who left a note to explain his suicide in March, saying: "My best is not good enough."

Meanwhile, the teachers' telephone counselling service Teacherline warns there are not just a few cases of extreme depression.

It has fielded more than 800 calls from people suffering from symptoms of serious or moderate depression (far more serious than everyday feelings of being fed up) since it was set up last September and believes this massively understates the problem in the profession because most teachers do not seek help.

A survey by the helpline revealed in May that 200,000 teachers - more than two in five in the profession in England and Wales - had experienced major stress, mainly due to workload, in the past two years. It said that work stress in teachers was four times more prevalent than in industry.

Newspaper headlines in the wake of Pamela Relf's death portrayed teaching as a depressed profession, unable to cope with constant change, crippling workloads, violent pupils and unreasonable scrutiny from the Office for Standards in Education.

But does it make any sense to talk about a "depressed profession"? Many teachers will not have recognised their staffrooms in the gloomy portrayals. The profession is undoubtedly under great pressure but people react to stress in different ways.

Surely depression is an illness suffered by individuals, whatever profession they might be

working in? Some teachers may have a genetic tendency to depression or there may be factors that predispose them to the illness.

Teacherline's first annual report notes: "There appears to be a belief within teaching that teachers 'can or should be able to cope with anything'. Comments such as 'it keeps on getting harder, there is no let up' and 'everyone seems to be coping except me' are very common."

After the death of Pamela Relf, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector for schools, expressed sorrow that she had been "unable to accept what the inspectors said to her". His response met with a barrage of criticism from the teaching unions and is dismissed by depression expert Oliver James as "ludicrous".

While there is a dearth of statistics comparing mental health problems in professions, figures

produced by the long-term

disability insurer UNUM three years ago indicated wide disparities in the incidence of severe

anxiety and depression between different sectors of the workforce. Teachers were among the hardest hit, 44 per cent of their disability insurance claims were for mental problems, compared to 25 per cent from other groups.

More recent Teacherline research indicates that there are far more calls related to stress, anxiety and depression than the average for professional helplines. Also, the scale of depressive symptoms among a majoriy of cases was "unusual".

The most obvious reason for teachers' problems is the significant increase in workloads. A 1997 report by the School Teachers' Review Body revealed that teachers' working hours were increasing at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the

professional population.

An in-depth study of 27 of Teacherline's cases revealed that 25 were expressing concerns over the pressure of work, or the amount of paperwork.

But Mr James, a clinical psychologist and author of Britain on the Couch, believes we must look beyond such a crude analysis to understand the peculiar problems of teaching.

"A very important cause and characteristic of depression is maladjusted comparison with others. It is looking at others and thinking 'I'm stupid', 'I'm ugly', when you are not. It is giving yourself an unreasonably

subordinate position and therefore creating a sense of purposelessness," he says.

"But if we look at the way in which education is being organised at present, we can see this kind of maladjusted comparison in the very structure of the


"You have the strange

phenomenon of even objectively quite successful people feeling anxiety and depression because they cannot keep up with greater and greater demands on them linked to measures of their performance that they do not feel will necessarily reflect how they are working."

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester's institute of science and technology, points out that some teachers' sense of purposelessness may be accentuated by a repetitiveness and lack of professional autonomy imposed by the dictates of the national curriculum.

"Everybody expects them to work on these children as if they are producing Big Macs. Everybody wants them to produce a quality burger again and again, with sometimes inferior ingredients. It is a recipe for problems."

Patrick Nash, chief executive of Teacherline, agrees with Mr James that it is possible to talk about problems of "institutional depression" in teaching.

"The challenge for the Government is to go beyond having a helpline dealing with these

problems when they arise, which was definitely needed, to working to address the source

of these problems," he says. "There are small signs, in the healthy schools initiative

provisions about staff health, that ears are open, but we will have to see if we are going to

get significant funding.

"Education in general hasn't really taken on board the fact that you can make significant changes to the organisational

culture that can minimise the problems caused by stress whereby people are taking

each other's health and well-

being seriously."

While the news that Chris Woodhead is leaving OFSTED to become a consultant and Daily Telegraph columnist has cheered many teachers, changes to the inspection regime and league tables culture are unlikely in the short term. Patrick Nash believes that the Department for Education and Employment is showing interest in a "well-being project" in Norfolk, funded jointly by his organisation, the county council and the Health and Safety


The project allows schools to bid for small sums to improve their environment, but its main focus is on stress, anxiety and depression. It aims to train staff in relaxation techniques and coping strategies.

Mr Nash says there is anec-

dotal evidence that some schools have been receiving 10 times the response to job adverts that they had before joining the scheme.

He says: "What we need now is for the DFEE to pick this up and start funding this kind of work across the country. If that started to happen then we might see a cultural shift in the profession."

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