Too many teachers still fear being honest about their mental health

For so many teachers, the worry of being rejected prevents them from disclosing mental health issues at interview stage, finds Tom Rogers

Is the culture of schools to blame for teacher mental health problems?

Thankfully, our world seems to be taking steps forward when it comes to talking openly about mental health. And yet for teachers – for whom the mental health statistics are seriously alarming – disclosing challenges they face is still a huge issue.

Last week, an NQT told me that she’d lied in her PGCE interview and medical examination review for her first job. Why? Because it simply “wasn’t worth” outing herself and her condition. She suffered from long standing episodes of depression and a diagnosed mood disorder. She had previously suffered from suicidal thoughts but felt that if she had uttered those words, her career would have been over before it started.

After talking to her, I carried out a poll on Twitter.

I wanted to find out how many teachers felt similar about coming forward to their employer regarding a mental health condition. I had 3,136 respondents and 67 per cent said they wouldn’t disclose the information. A further 17 per cent said they weren’t sure they would.

It’s hardly scientific but the sheer volume of those who wouldn’t want to talk about their own mental health with their bosses presents a stark reminder of how far we still have to go in breaking the taboo surrounding mental health.

In 2016, another teacher conducted a similar poll and found that 65 per cent said they wouldn’t disclose.

I spoke to one head of department who is firmly in the 67 per cent bracket.

They said: “If I do disclose my mental health issues either in an application or at interview then I just feel that all my strengths will be overlooked and I’ll be seen as ‘weak’ and a potential liability. Somebody who they may not be able to rely on under pressure, somebody who might put extra pressure on the school via extended absence.

"Potentially I might end up being lost to the profession – a ‘lifer’ gone because of the damage done to my mental health and because the system we work in doesn’t support those who need it.”

The idea of those with mental health challenges being somehow “weak” is one I’ve challenged before. I’ve always citied the likes of Churchill as an example of a man who suffered from what he called the “black dog” throughout his life, but managed to hold the office of Prime Minister not once, but twice.

Another teacher (writing to me anonymously) was warned off disclosing a mental health issue to future employers. The warning came from their current headteacher.

They said: “We started talking about upcoming interviews and he said not to mention health issues because they would say thank you but no thank you. His reasoning was that headteachers want to employ people who are consistent and reliable to be in school. While I can see his point of view, I feel like that almost makes me unemployable to others because of ongoing health issues.”

Jodie Cousins, a PE teacher, perhaps sums it up best. She said: “There is a stigma still attached. Employers are most likely to see the teacher as ‘unreliable’ if they have had time off work. I think it needs to change. People grow. It’s temporary. Their situation is not their destination.”

There are some, however, who are comfortable to do so.

Mr Mattock, a prominent maths teacher and author said he would disclose at interview. “If they don't want me based on that, and won’t support me, it isn't the place for me,” he told me.

Jennifer Webb, a senior leader and fellow educational writer said: “I wouldn’t work for an employer who wasn’t invested in supporting me, and others, with mental health, or one who would pre-judge if that was on my application. YOU are interviewing THEM, too!”

In the current recruitment and retention crisis, I think Jennifer’s point carries a lot of weight.

Others like Pippa Stanard, a teachfirst ambassador, agreed: “In health check forms I have always been honest. Otherwise any mental health issues would be made far worse for me by the fear of being found out!”

All in all, from the interviews I conducted, comments made and poll results, I think things are changing for the better, but slowly. Personally, I’ve talked about my own diagnosis of cyclothymia publicly via Tes and Twitter. By sharing, teachers can access more support, formally or informally. This is important.

But something else needs to happen, too. Awareness and education on the various nuances of mental health conditions and challenges must be an important part of school leadership training and development.

Tom Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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