There are some things that can test even the most successful mental health recoveries: moving house, break-ups and losing jobs, for example.
Oh, and teacher training.
In the months leading up to the start of my ITT course, I was bombarded by friends, colleagues and news outlets telling me that training to teach would be one of the hardest things I would ever have to do.
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Members of my family warned me against it, fearing for my wellbeing. But I persisted because, yes, teaching is hard but it’s also transformative and (at times) joyful.
And, having worked multiple jobs, balancing freelancing with education roles, I was used to working long, hard hours.
When the course began, it was overwhelming but nothing I couldn’t handle.
I loved my first placement school, I was learning a lot and developing quickly.
I was in control of my mental health, even during some of the most stressful days of my placement. I was fine. Until suddenly I wasn’t.
Mental health at risk
I’ve dealt with mental health issues for the past 15 years but for the past two I’ve considered myself as “in recovery”.
I hadn't had any depressive cycles, and panic and anxiety had been relatively minor issues. I was off medication. In my head, I was “better”.
So when I started experiencing anxiety during late nights prepping resources for lessons, it gave me pause. But I dismissed it as ordinary stress and continued.
The thing is, you never know when a mental health issue is going to rear its head. You can be living a life you never could have imagined back when you were in A&E waiting for someone to give you a reason to keep going.
Years after your life has been almost destroyed and rebuilt, you can be sitting in a training session and find yourself overwhelmed by feelings you thought were dealt with, or maybe they were just buried. That’s what happened to me.
I was in a training session about mental health in children and adolescents.
There had been no trigger warnings at the top of the session; it was just straight in with 50 slides detailing the signs, symptoms and effects of mental health issues.
It was incredibly triggering and, as the session went on, I became more and more distressed. I wasn’t the only one.
You could’ve cut the tension in the room with a knife. Another trainee asked for a break and I ran out of the room in tears, along with several others who were also affected.
Looking back on it, I hadn’t really been OK for a while. Little things had been building up. I’d missed, or ignored, the warning signs and it all came to a head.
The weeks that followed were some of the lowest I’ve had in years and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was so disappointed in myself. I felt like I'd screwed up, like I'd made some misstep on my way to becoming a teacher and I wasn't getting better after all.
I worried that I wasn’t cut out for this course and, more than anything, I was incredibly frustrated with myself for this “weakness”.
I'd dealt with setbacks before, but the difference was I'd never felt this well before. Instead of going from bad to worse, I felt like I was going from great, right back to terrible. It felt like a long way to fall and it made me doubt how far I'd come.
I was embarrassed. I spent evenings alternately sobbing and feeling completely numb because I felt pathetic and ashamed that I’d somehow failed at being mentally strong.
A sense of perspective
What I didn’t realise is that it’s pretty incredible that I’ve even made it this far, that I've taken a huge step in my career and that my training and placements had so far been professionally successful. That's a huge deal, but I dismissed that completely because I'd had a setback.
It took some honest conversations with other trainees and my lead practitioner to make me realise just how far I've come. That every little step is a victory, and if I stumble backwards sometimes then that's OK.
Mental health is an ongoing journey and it's taken time for me to realise that there isn't a solid end point, that I'll never reach normal because normal doesn't exist and that you can have a mental health issue and still be a good teacher.
Depression is always lurking
Depression isn't a disease that is ever completely vanquished. I believe that, at least for me, it will always be there, constantly shifting. There are just good days and bad days, and although I’m still in the midst of a setback, at some point, there will be a shift.
This setback has made me think about the lack of provision to support the mental health of trainee teachers. When I felt at my lowest, I didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to.
Speaking to my lead practitioner about my struggles was helpful, but it took a huge amount of courage for me to do that and not everyone will be able to put themselves out there without being signposted.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure what adequate support in this area might look like, but I do know that changes need to be made.
Last year, the Education Support Partnership found that two in five NQTs experience mental health issues and of teachers who are in the first five years of their careers, 52 per cent have considered leaving teaching because of health and wellbeing pressures.
Statistics like these relating to trainee teachers are currently unavailable but the University of East Anglia is conducting research into the provision for mental health and wellbeing for trainee teachers and what can be done to support this.
If you’re training to teach and experiencing mental health issues, it’s important to speak out, if you can. I can guarantee you’re not the only one.
The writer has chosen to remain anonymous