Opening up about mental health: teachers and education staff | Education Support

Opening up about mental health: teachers and education staff

When I finally accepted that I’d been through a breakdown as a result of work-related burnout and had been suffering from depression for some time beforehand, I felt ashamed.

Ashamed for many reasons.

Firstly, that I hadn’t realised. I knew I was unhappy with work, constantly exhausted and resultingly had become an emotional rollercoaster for partner but I didn’t see how bad things had got. I didn’t see how burnout I’d become, how many friends I’d pushed away and how hard my partner was trying every day to make me smile.

Secondly, I felt ashamed because for some time I’d felt like a failure, like I’d let people down. I’d let work take over my life and that impacted my loved ones, my job and my students.

Thirdly, I felt ashamed that I’d been too scared to accept that my mental health had been in decline for some time. The stigma attached to mental health meant I recognised some of the signs but failed to accept them. 

But whilst I felt ashamed, I also felt a small sense of accomplishment that whilst I’d been experiencing challenges with my mental health and although it did ‘break’ me for quite some time, I didn’t let it be in the end of me; I didn’t leave teaching despite feeling like I wanted to so much; I didn’t act upon the many thoughts that whirled around my head when I felt I had little fight let in me; and that when I broke although I really didn’t want to,  I did reach out and seek help.

It was that small sense of accomplishment that gave me the bravery to finally speak out, to share my experience with the wider teaching profession without hiding behind anonymity.

Early on I’d recognised how reaching out to Education Support had kept me in the profession, they’d help me find the confidence to take time off, to seek medical support and to apply to one more school but it wasn’t until almost a year later that I fully understood what I’d been through.

When I finally did though, that small sense of accomplishment, well that drove me to write my first blog on my experience of burnout and breakdown as a teacher. I called it ‘Breakdown, reach out, recover’ because I wanted others to know that recovery is possible even when it feels like the impossible.

From there I realised I wasn’t alone as messages came in of similar experiences. Messages from teachers too scared to speak up and too scared of the stigma, judgements and perceptions associated with mental health. That’s when I realised, I could help. I could share my experience and be a voice for those in the profession to scared too say anything, to reach out, to seek help.

Since then I’ve been an advocate for teacher mental health and wellbeing and there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.

1. Everyone has mental health

Until my experience, I failed to recognise the importance of mental health, yet it’s something we all have. Whilst some of us may never experience mental health challenges, there are many that do, whether it’s something they’ve been born with or something that develops as a result their experiences in life, and so we all have a duty of care to look after ourselves and each other as best we can. We need to look out for one another, ask how others are and really care about the response.

2. Talking about mental health normalises it

The stigma surrounding mental health is far bigger than it should be. So many of us are scared of the consequences of discussing negative mental health experiences – stress, anxiety, depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc. they all happen and yet they can be so well hidden. There may be staff and students experiencing mental health challenges around you every day and you won’t see it. As a society we’ve become very good at hiding them, acting ‘normal’ in front of others until we are in the privacy of our own safe space.

Mental health awareness is on the increase, both in schools and nationally but it’s still not normalised. We need to make it so.

I was terrified last year after I told my form group about my experience of depression. I’d been doing a HSEE session on the topic and it was outdated, they were bored and finding it funnier than they should have. So, I stopped what we were doing, and I told them that before starting at our school, my work at another school had taken a burden and resultingly I’d suffered from depression. I told them a bit about how it felt but also how I’d come to recover from it. Those words had a bigger impact on their understanding than any PowerPoint or video could. That night I’d worried I’d done the wrong thing, but the next day was just like any other, we joked, laughed and got on with it. Everything was normal.

3. Whilst mental health awareness is on the rise, so are work-related mental health challenges

Mental health is on the political agenda, both for students and staff in our schools and despite offerings such as the DfE’s workload toolkit, there are still school staff experiencing the heavy burden of high workload.

For many the high workload and emotional toll are impacting upon their mental health and personal wellbeing evident by Education Support’s Wellbeing Index 2019.

Partly this maybe the result of a greater understanding and thus awareness but I also feel it’s the consequence of frequent change, high accountability and the impact of top-down pressures on teachers, leaders and support. This needs to change.

Talk to your colleagues about the mental and physical health of the profession and school. Discuss what helps you, share your experiences and look for solutions together.

4. Talking therapy helps

Opening up about my experience has helped me to internalise it and accept my challenges. I don’t expect anyone to open up publicly, but talking it through with someone whether a doctor, trained counsellor or a friend is worthwhile.

For me talking about my experience both with a counsellor and online has helped me to recognise the signs of deterioration in myself, helping me to intervene before it becomes a problem (although not always successfully). It’s also helped me to find the confidence to reach out and discuss my challenges with my loved ones. My husband and I now openly discuss when we are feeling stressed, anxious etc. and what our concerns are, yet for years we bottled it up.

There is always someone to talk to. You just have to reach out.

The counsellors at the Education Support are fantastic! They listen, support and guide to help you to discover solutions that are best for you. A call to their helpline helped keep me in teaching. 

So remember their free and confidential helpline is here 24/7 throughout the UK on 08000 562561 for all education staff. Download this poster for your staffroom now! 

5. You can have mental health challenges and be a great teacher

After I sought professional help, I went on anti-depressants. I tried coming off them 2 years later, but that lasted for all of 2 months. The last two weeks of the summer break I just worried about what September would bring and so my anxiety built and built until by week 3 of the new school year I was back at the doctors asking to go back on the tablets. I took them for another 8 months before trying to come off them again. This time 3 months passed but the end of the school year saw a lot of change and I felt I needed them again.

This is because whilst I’ve built up strategies to deal with work-related stress, being on anti-depressants helps me to think rationally and clearly. When I first discovered this, I felt like the fog of anxiety that had always occupied my mind had lifted. I didn’t realise until I’d tried medication that I’d been living with general anxiety for much of my life, I’d never known a day to go by when I didn’t unnecessarily worry. However, teaching exacerbates it, I don’t want to fail anyone. But medication helps manage it.

I might come off medication again at some point in the future, but I’ve accepted that it helps my mind and body and that’s okay. I can still be great at what I do and still have mental health challenges. The same applies to you!

What’s next?

Mental health affects all of us. Let’s talk about it, raise awareness and fight together to overcome the stigma of negative mental health. Together we can do that.

Get support when you need it 

Please make use of the support available to you. Sometimes it's hard to speak to people you are close to and even harder to speak to a stranger. 

So remember their free and confidential helpline is here 24/7 throughout the UK on 08000 562561 for all education staff. Download this poster for your staffroom now! 

To read more on Victoria’s experiences visit her blog, MrsHumanities.com, follow her on twitter (@MrsHumanities) and check out her book ‘Making it as  Teacher’