‘I worried that the world was about to cave in’

6th November 2015 at 00:00
One teacher who suffered mental illness offers advice on protecting staff wellbeing

When I think about the first couple of years of my teaching career, I remember the back of the staff toilet door. Cream, with a matt finish. An overly complex toilet roll holder. A hook for coats.

I spent many of my spare lessons and the few minutes of free time I had before school staring at that door. It’s not that I was suffering from some nasty digestive complaint – I was in there crying.

Like at least one in five Britons, I suffered a mental illness. I still do. In my case, I am prone to bouts of chronic depression and anxiety.

For my first five years of teaching, including what you would term an NQT year here in Britain, those illnesses were largely untreated and not properly diagnosed. It’s not that I chose to ignore them, or couldn’t afford treatment. Rather, it was that I felt I shouldn’t – couldn’t – make a big deal out of them.

You see, depression and anxiety are insidious illnesses, in that they have few explicit outward traces. I spent weeks feeling as if I were weighed down, navigating a cavern of jagged glass. Yet as long as I could physically get myself dressed and to work, there was no way to definitively show or prove to anyone that I was ill.

We teachers seem to have a slight martyr complex when it comes to shouldering burdens, and my (admittedly constant) sadness and fear didn’t seem that bad when compared with the loads that some of my colleagues were carrying. So I said nothing.

A typical day, at the blackest of times, involved sitting at my desk in constant fear, worried that the world (and my job) were about to cave in.

Whispered conversations between staff in corners were an indictment on my teaching and my suitability to be a teacher. An unkind remark from a student would leave me feeling as if a wound had been opened in my side.

Of course, this toxic mix of miserable fatigue and spiking, screeching fear meant that my teaching suffered. I could barely control my classes. I was too exhausted to plan properly. I was a frightened young man, unable to cope with the physical demands of the profession.

The turnaround came for me when I left my first school sick, angry and burned out. The reality of what not prioritising my health and asking for help had done to me forced me to act. Over the next few years I worked with counsellors to examine my thought patterns and, when that wasn’t enough, come up with a medication plan.

These days, there’s barely a trace of those cold, lonely times. I feel confident, competent and engaged in what I’m doing. I know that with sensible decisions and a close eye on my diet and sleep routines, I can be a fantastic teacher. I am healthier and happier than I have ever been.

What this experience has opened my eyes to is that schools have a long way to go when it comes to supporting teachers suffering from mental illness.

We talk a lot about teacher wellbeing, but a few lollipops and a cheery note in a paper bag on an Inset day don’t confront the fact that some sickness isn’t visible and that, untreated, it can have major consequences.

It’s time for teachers and senior leadership teams across the country to talk about how we can effectively identify and support teachers experiencing mental illness.

We need to ensure that rather than stigmatising mental illness (as much as I loathe to use the cliché), we treat it as the equal of physical ailments. We need to make sure that the “walking wounded” are cared for.

I’ve learned a lot about how to manage mental illness as a teacher. Below, I’ve outlined five tips that are the start of looking after yourself, with the hope that schools will keep their part of the bargain (see panel, below) and help to look after you, too.

1 Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep is not for the weak – lack of it will make you weak. Eight hours a night should be the goal. Practise good “sleep hygiene” to make sure those hours are spent in deep REM sleep: stay away from caffeinated drinks before bed, reduce your exposure to noise and light, and try a guided meditation or relaxation activity.

2 Eat three meals a day

Eating breakfast will set you up for the day ahead. Spend 10 minutes making a packed lunch and stay away from sugary foods that will send your blood sugar skyrocketing and then bring it crashing down. If you’re prone to depression or anxiety, these swings can have a harmful effect. If you are well fed, your mood is more likely to stay on an even keel.

3 Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you’re finding it difficult to cope, the best thing to do is schedule time with the SLT and explain your situation. They will have a good idea of how to support you and can help to ensure that you don’t continue to struggle.

4 Take it all one day at a time

In the midst of depression, deadlines can seem like impassable mountain ranges looming ahead of you. Shift your focus to the short term and concentrate on having a good, calm day of teaching. If you don’t achieve it, that’s OK – start afresh tomorrow. Time will begin to pass in an easier, more controllable fashion.

5 Find what makes you happy

If you are prone to depression and anxiety, moments of peace, calm and happiness are worth a great deal. Make it an absolute priority to spend at least 45 minutes a day doing something you love – walking, art, even spending quality time with a pet. The routine and the serotonin hit will give you a much-needed boost – and will be something to look forward to.

Mike Stuchbery is a geography and history teacher at Lea Manor High School, Luton

Tips from charity Mind for looking after staff mental health

Smart employers know that organisations are only as strong as their people. They depend on having a healthy, productive workforce – and good mental health underpins this, according to Mind, the mental health charity.

But, it says, there are a number of simple, inexpensive measures that all employers can introduce to help support staff wellbeing in challenging and pressurised environments.

Create a culture of openness: regular one-to-one meetings and catch-ups are a great way to ask your staff how they’re getting on. Doing this regularly will help to build trust and give employees a chance to raise problems at an early stage. This can save time later on.

Encourage mental health “champions”: people at all levels talking openly about mental health sends a clear message that you will get support if you’re experiencing a mental health problem and that it will not be a barrier to career development.

Embed mental health from the start: ensure staff are given, as part of their induction, information on how mental health is managed and what support is available. Mental health awareness training, particularly for managers, can also help, as long as it’s put into practice.

Create a “buddy” system: this builds and strengthens relationships between colleagues and provides a chance to chat about wellbeing and challenges in an informal setting.

Raise people’s awareness of the importance of building their resilience and looking after their wellbeing: do this by making the most of internal communications channels with blogs, myth-busters, factsheets, tips for staff and managers, and FAQs to promote good self-care. You can use posters, noticeboards, staff newsletters and the intranet to provide information on maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and ask staff to share their tips on how they manage their own mental health.

Mind offers free resources for staff and employers at www.mind.org.uk/work. For confidential help and support in your local area, call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393

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