It’s World Mental Health Day and I am about to admit something publicly, something that my friends and family know and the people I work for know, but I guess this is a completely different ballgame, so here goes. I have Clinical Depression and Anxiety. I have been having treatment for it for a few years, but it probably started when I was about 18 or 19 years old. It’s not something I want to have, but it is there and mostly, through a mixture of medication, counselling, mindfulness and generally attempting to look after myself, I have it under control and it impacts little on my day to day life. It is an illness that, I have had to learn, will never go away, but can be controlled to a certain extent, as long as I recognise the triggers that can set it off.
So the interesting thing is, why did I migrate towards a profession where, let’s be honest, I open myself up to constant criticism and negativity, and the answer is simply this – young people.
There is little kindness and compassion in education itself, we are constantly being assessed on our results, our levels of progress, whether our teaching is good, whether our marking is up to scratch, whether we are challenging students enough, whether we are differentiating, whether we are engaging every single student in our classroom, 6 lessons a day, 5 days a week. We are expected to achieve perfection in everything we do. Somehow ‘Outstanding’, which surely means way above the level of what things should be like on a day-to-day basis, has become the level we should all be at consistently. It’s led to a culture where if teachers don’t get an ‘Outstanding’ observation, then they get upset and question why. So what happens if we all reach ‘Outstanding’ is there a new category like ‘Ultra Outstanding’? It’s all become a bit of a farce.
So it is little surprise that on one of my check-ups at the ‘booby hatch’, I had a long conversation with a mental health nurse about the rise of teachers that they were seeing with mental health issues. We are unfortunately at a time in education where the pressures on teachers are immense, we seem to have evolved a management culture that have completely forgotten what it is like to teach several full days on the trot (although this isn’t always the case, I have read and seen some wonderfully heartwarming stuff from SLTs lately) and have a media and government that seem to want to continually slam teachers for ‘not being good enough’. Is it any wonder that this leads to a rise in teachers with mental health issues? If you bang it into people’s heads for long enough, it becomes their way of thinking and that ultimately can be dangerous to an individual’s health and well-being.
But back to why I am a teacher and why I am able to deal with these pressures. The students. It’s perhaps ironic that young people seem to have more care and compassion than adults. These are some examples as to why:
1. I obviously would never tell a student about my condition as this would be professionally wrong (perhaps another indicator of the stigmatism of mental illness) but when I get tired, I struggle more. One morning I had a panic attack and couldn’t get out of my garden gate. I rang work and someone went to cover my class until I could get there. After I had calmed myself down, I went into work, feeling and obviously looking exhausted from the whole ordeal. I took over from the cover teacher and carried on with the lesson as normal. While they were working, one of the students came up to me and said, “we want you to know that we love you and we think you’re brilliant” whilst another shouted “that is from all of us, you know!” I needed that, that day. It came from young people.
2. The end of the lesson when a student came up to me and said, “thanks Miss, that was a really good lesson and I proper get it now.” “Ah,” I replied “but X wasn’t getting involved” “So?” replied the student, “it’s not your fault they don’t want to learn”
3. The times when students have thanked me for marking their work so quickly, because they know I must have been up late doing it.
Sadly, I see mental health from the other side. I see the rise of young people suffering from mental health conditions, because of the enormous pressures that both schools and society put on them. I have a student in one of my classes who has been diagnosed with depression, and sometimes I really want to say to her, “I know how you are feeling and it will be ok, you will see light again.” But, I can’t and I don’t.
So why have I admitted this? Because I think it’s important that I do. Because if some of the 1 in 4 of us who have it admit it then it becomes less of a stigma. I think if you met me and didn’t know, you’d never tell. I am a ‘normal’ person. It doesn’t tend to affect my work. I have had to have 2 weeks off with it in my whole school career, and for those 2 weeks I was itching to get back and see the students, because they make me laugh, they frustrate me, they push me to my limits, but they make me smile and keep me wanting to do my job. Ironically, it tends to be the holidays when I struggle with my health the most. Perhaps though, it is time that many adults saw what they do. That we should be kind to one another, we should celebrate our achievements and if we have tried, then we are never a failure. We should thank each other for the work we share that has taken time and effort, we should celebrate and acknowledge the good things that others do. It’s no good saying it; we need to do it so that life can be that bit more mentally stable for some and ultimately, so that good people stop leaving the profession in droves, just so they can achieve mental peace.