'We owe it to our students to discuss our own struggles with mental health' – one teacher’s extraordinary story
By Tom Rogers on 27 October 2017
Tom Rogers, a head of history and acclaimed Tes columnist, discusses his 'mind journey' and his decision to be open about his mental illness
In October 2010, I travelled down to Cardiff to hear a speech by the then Welsh education secretary Leighton Andrews.
I was sat at a table with a number of my colleagues who’d made the trip. I can’t remember a thing that Leighton said in a 45-minute address (sorry, Leighton). What I do remember vividly is spending the whole time fantasising about my own death; this reccurring and carefully mastered sequence of events involved my driving to Menai Bridge and hurling myself off. Of course, I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of pain, but the escape offered by death was alluring, the comfort of “freedom” from the intense feelings I had. “Feelings” that went beyond “feeling down” – way beyond. My head and heart felt like a tinderbox constantly wanting to catch ablaze.
A few months after Leighton’s speech, I found myself sat in the middle of an empty field in North Wales crying uncontrollably, not being able to stop. A lone dog walker had spotted me lying there and called the police. She was a local villager, so she had told them where I lived. They turned up later that night at my door and asked me if I intended to kill myself. Of course I didn’t. Nevertheless, this moment perfectly captured what I went through for nigh on a year, day after day, week after week.
I didn’t tell anyone at my school anything. I should have.
But at that time, I'd just been promoted. I’d just started teaching sixth form. I was halfway through a master's accredited leadership course. I was also aware of being suspected as slightly crazy if I came forward with these revelations. This wasn’t because I didn’t trust my colleagues – they were some of the most wonderful I've ever worked for or with – but because of the way society is, especially then.
In a paradox I struggle to understand, my productivity continued to increase, my career continued on an upward trajectory.
It was during this time that I drove myself to the hospital at 3am on a school night to tell them I was feeling desperate and, after a few consultations with a psychiatrist, was diagnosed with cyclothymia or “bipolar lite”, as Stephen Fry calls it. At the time, I linked almost all my feelings to the ending of a relationship, but this was naïve. Although this “bout” was the worst I've experienced, over the subsequent seven years, I’ve had more short bursts of the same; for hours, days, sometimes months, mixed in with occasional “highs”, when I'm the social equivalent of Will Smith.
In 2010, I tried some drugs that didn’t seem to quell it. It would be five years before I went back down the medication route.
Teaching with a mental health problem like mine is interesting. Robin Williams comes to mind: a consummate actor and performer who appeared to be one of the most confident, intelligent, witty and “together” people in the world when he was “performing”. Away from the cameras, he suffered bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction, and eventually took his own life.
A member of my family was a primary school teacher of 35 years. He was much loved by the children in his care. He organised the school choir. He wrote his own music. He was committed to his work to the extent that he would rise at 5am every day to complete the necessary tasks before the day. During all of this, he was drinking heavily. They say mental illness runs in families; I’ve no doubt my uncle suffered. I’ve also no doubt he didn’t consider himself to have a mental health problem, let alone acknowledge it others. He died in his one-bedroom flat. This is what mental illness is. It isn’t “feeling a bit down” and doing something “happy” to get over it. This is real, deep, and feels unconquerable in the moment.
The first thing you must do is open up to a colleague, preferably someone in a leadership position within your school. They can be your advocate. It should be someone you trust, but also someone who you feel has the capability and perhaps even empathy to understand your problem. That’s why I think it would be brilliant if all schools had a mental health link in either middle or senior leadership for staff, someone who was perhaps honest in their own vulnerability, perhaps someone who was “open” about their own struggle.
The problem is: how many senior and middle leaders are honest about their own struggle? Very few. If all else fails, please contact a charity such as Education Support.
I will also soon be publishing a list of teachers on Twitter who are open to being contacted to offer anonymous support in the form of a listening ear with a professional lilt.
Don’t be ashamed of what your mind is telling you. If you don’t think your school will deal with this well, they might surprise you. You never really know what other people think about mental health or what other people have been through. Last week, I revealed on Twitter that I’d taken a day off because I felt awful. The response was very positive from so many teachers across the spectrum of schools, views and vagaries. The response was also extremely positive from my line manager in school. It showed to me that there are a lot of people out there who want to help, but also many more who feel the same way and who just want someone to talk to, even if it’s just once every couple of weeks.
Another reason to do this is for the kids. While all kinds of mental illness afflicts the children in our care, we try to appear immune to “weakness” for the most part. This can sometimes be a good thing – modelling strength and resilience. On the other hand, some honesty with the kids about our own “mind journeys” surely can’t be a bad thing. Allowing them to see that their teachers suffer, too – but manage it and successfully do what they need to do – could be a powerful thing.
So, I’m going to start getting the message out. I hope more educators, male educators in particular, can follow suit.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue