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Let's talk about teachers' mental health: prevention is better than cure

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“I hardly ever went to counselling sessions because I was too absorbed in work and was worried about the stigma.” Does this quote from a teacher suffering with depression sum up why mental health is an issue in education?

I feel quite strongly about raising awareness of mental health. It’s great that we are talking about poor mental health more, but are we doing enough to prevent it in the first place? As a former teacher, and now the fiancé of a trainee psychological wellbeing practitioner (PWP) in the NHS, experience tells me we aren’t.

The Key’s State of Education report, released earlier this year, also confirms my thinking. Over 64% of surveyed school leaders reported that their work-life balance was having a negative impact on their mental health. And two weeks ago, another survey from The Key reported that 67% of school leaders surveyed were concerned about their pupils’ mental health too. These startling statistics make me worry about the impact of the English education system on those who drive it and the children who receive it.

This is not a new phenomenon. Research carried out over 20 years ago found that teachers' mental ill-health was predominantly linked to job pressure factors. I decided to use the power of social media to do some informal research about job pressure, work-life balance, and teachers' mental health.

Through Facebook, I asked teachers to explain if and how they felt their mental health had been affected by their work-life balance. An hour later, I was overwhelmed by the number of responses from teachers I had previously worked with and teachers I barely knew.

I heard from NQTs who found that increased workloads and performance management pressures had led to stress, tiredness and anxiety. I heard from a senior member of staff, whose work-life balance in a school in special measures had led her to initially reduce her teaching responsibilities and take a pay cut, then later resign.

[caption id="attachment_4727" align="aligncenter" width="240"] The response from one teacher who suffered from anxiety, depression and weight loss.[/caption]


I also heard from a teacher whose battle with poor mental health began during the first teaching practice of her PGCE year, when she lost six kilos in four weeks. During her second teaching practice, she lost another seven kilos due to anxiety-induced loss of appetite. The lack of adequate work-life balance also led to the breakdown of her long-term relationship. Her battle with depression and anxiety did not end until she left teaching in the UK.

[caption id="attachment_4731" align="aligncenter" width="730"]  A WordItOut cloud of the most common words used in teacher's responses.[/caption]


So can we solve the predominance of poor mental health among our teachers without addressing the work-life balance? Conversations with my fiancée make me doubtful. I normally glaze over and drift off when she starts speaking in psychology acronyms, but for once I stuck with it - and I learned how mental health and work-life balance are linked. She explained that behavioural activation, one of the cognitive behavioural therapy techniques taught to combat depression and anxiety, requires identifying and then planning the right balance of:

  • Routine activities
  • Necessary activities
  • Pleasurable activities

In my view, teachers are often far too stretched to even make time for pleasurable activities - never mind finding 'the right balance'.

So how did the teachers I spoke to attempt to solve their mental health issues? Some were prescribed anti-depressants and offered counselling, as in the case of the teacher quoted at the beginning of this post.

One NQT managed to stick to a strict no-working policy in the evenings at weekends due to her reduced NQT teaching time. Another teacher left the country and has found happiness in teaching children in an education system with significantly less paperwork. But this is not exactly an ideal solution in a profession struggling to retain its staff!

Instead, let's shift the focus to prevention. Trainee teachers should be better prepared for the potential impact of teaching on their mental health. During my PGCE year, time was dedicated to studying educational psychology. Sessions on coping with stress and pressure might have been more effective in the long run than learning about Pavlov’s dogs.

Additionally, staff should be better supported in school, rather than referred to our over-stretched mental health services and charities. Although the government says it trusts headteachers to address health issues, it apparently fails to realise that headteachers cannot be expected to be counsellors and PWPs.

Perhaps the future will see local authorities or academy chains provide in-house training delivered by trained specialists. Page 9 of CentreForum’s study on wellbeing and mental health in secondary schools explains that 86% of students have access to a counsellor - let's see the same immediate access for staff.

In the meantime, we are fortunate that charities like the Teacher Support Network and Mind are here to help.

But in the long run, we must do more to ensure a better balance. As one teacher said to me: “Happy staff = happy kids. Happy kids = best results”.

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