Supporting colleagues with mental health issues | Education Support
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Supporting teachers and education staff with mental health issues

Supporting colleagues with mental health issues

6th October 2020

Coronavirus has changed the world of education in an unimaginable way in a very short space of time. Education staff have had to embrace new ways of working, adhere to ever changing guidelines, look after their own families and generally try not to panic about the possibility of contracting a deadly virus.

The pandemic has the potential to exacerbate symptoms for those teachers and education staff with existing mental health conditions and could trigger mental ill health symptoms for the first time in others. 

As World Mental Health Day approaches, we look at how can we support these colleagues during these turbulent times. 

Spotting the signs

If everyone is aware of both the physical and psychological signs that someone is struggling with their mental health and wellbeing, then they will be more likely to notice when a colleague is in need of support. Some of the signs include:

Emotional signs:

  • irritability, tearfulness, and frustration
  • withdrawn and not participating in conversations or out-of-work activities
  • finding it hard to concentrate and are missing deadlines or forgetting things
  • loss of confidence/self-belief
  • taking on too much work
  • louder and more hyperactive than usual

Physical signs:

  • constant tiredness
  • headaches
  • waking early and not sleeping
  • weight loss or gain
  • sweatiness
  • stomach problems or nausea
  • drinking too much

Conversations about mental health

Having any type of mental ill health can make you feel vulnerable, alone, scared and ashamed. This is why conversations about mental health will need to be had in a specific way. There needs to be time and space available for colleagues to be listened to. Finding the time for this during this ‘new normal’ is going to be hard due to the movement around school that colleagues are doing.

If you suspect a colleague is struggling with their mental health, you need to have a protected and regular time to support them and show genuine empathy in the conversation. These tips for active listening could help:

  • Ask open questions such as ‘How have you been feeling?’ rather than closed questions that may restrict the information you could gain to help your colleague.
  • Summarize what they have said to make sure you have understood correctly. Mental health issues can be complex, and misunderstanding one vital piece of information could mean the difference between a colleague feeling supported or not.
  • Reflect words or phrases that you feel may be significant. For example, if they have said something like ‘Things have been tricky recently’, it might be a good idea to reflect the word ‘tricky’ back at them to allow them to consider what they mean by this.
  • Give them time to explain and clarify. For example, if they say, ‘I have been feeling unwell recently’ it might be appropriate to ask them to explain what they mean by this. It could be physical symptoms linked to mental health, or they may want to talk about their mental health symptoms further.
  • If they are reluctant to talk, small words of encouragement could be helpful to allow them to give more details. A simple ‘Tell me more’ or ‘Go on’ could encourage valuable information.
  • It is important to react appropriately to their information if they have gone through something awful, and it is a good idea to thank them for sharing this information with you.

It may be appropriate to refer colleagues to external support either from their GP or from Education Support, who offer a free 24/7 emotional support line for all education staff as they may feel too anxious or exposed to talk to someone in school.

The important thing is that they have someone to talk to who they can share their upsetting feelings with. The danger is that if someone feels so low they become absent from the workplace, and this then increases their feelings of isolation and their depression can worsen as they may not have the stability of the school routine.

Practical support

There also needs to be practical support in terms of ‘reasonable adjustments’ that can be made to support their recovery and show that you care about helping them.

These ‘reasonable adjustments’ are linked to the Equality Act 2010, which states that staff suffering from mental ill health should not be disadvantaged due to their condition. This is applicable if their mental health is a long-term condition and diagnosed by a professional (either a GP or psychiatrist).

‘Reasonable adjustments’ must be manageable and financially viable, however. For example, a full-time paid member of staff could not have reduced hours for a whole academic year. They could have it for a limited period of time, and if their mental health is not improving, then their line manager may suggest a reduction of hours with classes redistributed elsewhere in the school and potentially increasing another part-time colleague’s contract.

It could be that the colleague has additional responsibilities that are causing mental ill health, so it may be appropriate to have these responsibilities reduced for a short period of time whilst the colleague recovers. It should be made clear that this is to support them, and they will be able to take on more responsibilities in the future.

They may need to work from home in their non-contact or planning periods so that they can focus in a quiet environment and have the time to recover from a busy school day.

The key part of supporting a colleague by giving ‘reasonable adjustments’ is that they feel in control of any changes and have time to discuss them face-to-face so that they can ask any questions and plan things with their line manager.

In the currently fragmented school environment, it is vital to look after colleagues and ensure that they have someone at school or home to share their feelings with to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.

Amy Sayer has been a secondary school teacher for the past 13 years. She is a trained Mental Health First Aider and has helped her school achieve the Carnegie Centre of Excellence in Mental Health Award in 2019. She is the author of Supporting Staff Mental Health in Schools which is available to pre-order now.

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

What can you do?

If you’re in a position to help others in these extraordinary times, please consider making a donation so that we can continue to answer the increasing number of desperate calls and grants applications we are receiving. Thank you so much.