An Educator’s Guide To Mental Health and Well Being

I believe that mental health illnesses are exactly that, illnesses, and should be viewed as such without the fear of stigma and discrimination. As educators, it is our social, moral and legal responsibility to create an environment in our classrooms in which pupils and teachers alike feel safe in reaching out for help and support.

Recently I appeared on BBC London’s Inside Out program “Why Teaching is Making Me Ill” in which I disclosed that I, myself have suffered from bouts of depression, sleeplessness and anxiety. Since the program aired not only have I been inundated with emails from fellow teachers in solidarity but my pupils have been completely supportive and frank in their questioning. Although I do feel as though I have reduced my employment opportunities in some schools but do I really want to work for those organisations anyway, so all in all a positive experience.

Let me make a point here I refuse to be ashamed of an illness. This is my consistent response to every enquiry which errs on the side of stigma or discrimination, sometimes peoples brains don’t produce enough chemicals for them to function at a 100% all of the time and I cannot emphasise this enough, that’s okay.

Being honest as educators, schools can be pressure cookers for teachers with the inherent stresses of day to day issues of working with the volatility of pupils, unachievable numerical exam targets, incessant formal lesson observations, pay related performance management and the harsh face of accountability.

Similarly, pupils in their adolescence also have a multitude of stresses and if not checked in many cases this becomes a breeding ground for mental health issues. As leaders within schools, how do we create a safe environment within the teaching body and as classroom practitioners how do we do the same for the student body?

How School Leaders can impact on Mental well being

School leaders, senior and middle leaders should be acutely aware of the impact of their actions. When relaying targets teacher self-efficacy has to be in the forefront of their minds, when leaders and followers alike don’t believe they can do their task successfully the pressures are often passed down the chain and ultimately to this impacts on the pupils.

A protective layer of real leadership has to be formed somewhere along the chain as the number of times I’ve heard senior leaders make statements such as “just get the results” and “you’re the middle leader make it happen”. Similarly, I’ve heard teachers say to pupils “Grow up you’re in year 11” or “You haven’t started revising. What is the point of me teaching you?”. None of the phrases offers any insight, knowledge or advice to move forward however it does have the effect of making the pupil or teacher feel pressured and stressed without the tools to solve the dilemma.

School leaders need to recognise honesty and transparency are the structures which form an organisation’s foundations of culture. Within my current senior leadership team, I feel absolutely no fear of judgement or consequent discrimination as a real trust has been built through long term continuous and honest discourse.

Many teachers and pupils either fear the consequences of reaching out for help or are unaware of the symptoms and illnesses they are going through. Digging into the reasons behind this, often the stigma comes second to the discrimination around mental health. Simply creating a culture where people are not labelled is not enough, the fear of discrimination have to put to rest first.

Without the regular conversations trust around our mental well-being cannot be built, similarly, I would advocate a similar approach with our pupils. Some schools use form tutors/mentors to foster such conversations but I believe this has the most impact if we celebrate the role of the teacher in pupil well-being. Every teacher is and should be a teacher of mental well-being.

Important: Let me point out that teachers (including myself) are not trained and probably do not have the skills to treat mental illness or identify them. This is okay, accept this and own it we are not health care professionals. Direct pupils and parents to the right medical services.

“Place Mask on Securely on Yourself Before you Help Others”

I’d like to make an analogy here; on aeroplanes, the oxygen safety mask announcements always end with “Place your mask on securely, before you help others”. If I am saying it’s your responsibility to look after your pupils’ mental well-being, to do this effectively I’m also saying you have to fulfil the same responsibility to your own self.

How do you check your own mental wellbeing? I live by one steadfast rule, if there is something that has a detrimental impact on your day to day life, that’s not okay. Regardless if it is physical or mental in nature, go and seek medical help from your doctors.

Here are my 7 tips for the preparation for getting help:

1. You are not going crazy or mad (this is unhelpful). The chances are, that you are ill, accept this, you are going for treatment for your illness. You are at the doctors for treatment.

2. Doctors are often nebulous beings in our lives, they are always there but do we really know them. Think about and prepare the words to describe how you have been feeling. It took me at least 2 appointments to describe my experience clearly.

3. Get there in good time and think about asking for a longer appointment. I didn’t go to my first appointment, I was a few minutes late and it was easier to cancel than face it. The second appointment wasn’t much better, I made a sharp exit mid-appointment when I realised that time was going to be an issue.

4. Be honest with yourself and consequently the doctor. You deserve to be happy and don’t let anything get in the way of that.

5. Take someone who knows you well with you, that’s if you need to, we all get lost for words sometimes or become overwhelmed it made easier to tackle if you have back up.

6. Be open to the doctor’s advice, remember they are the professionals. Anti-depressants are often regarded as a taboo. For some people, tablets are the way forward and letting a stigma around a pill stop you from feeling better is silly.

7. Commit to making yourself healthy. This means there may not be a quick fix but a long term strategy. As practitioners we often commit to our schools and pupils, spending endless hours doing your very best for them. Do the same for yourself you deserve it.

If you are not in a position to support a pupil, do not lament, just use the structures within the school and pass it on to someone who is, Recognise you can only give when you are ready and able to give. If you feel you are in a position to support please recycle the above list, use it as script and pass it on.

Then, and this is important whether you supporting or passed it on, it is your responsibility to keep checking in with the pupil, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders, mental illnesses do not disappear after a trip to the doctors.

Telling Pupils – About Yourself or Others

The first time I told I pupil that I suffered was around 10 years ago. At the time she felt alone in the world and thought the feelings of anguish and anxiety was brought on because she wasn’t positive enough and/or appreciate her life enough.

“It’s okay {add name}, I have these sometimes too, try and breathe through it, it’ll pass, I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but it’ll pass”

As soon as I said it I stuttered, stammered and stopped, was this what I should be telling a pupil during an anxiety attack? Does this make me look weak? Will the senior leadership team find out? Is this the right thing to do?

The answers to these questions are yes. Yes, the act of sharing was an act of solidarity, she was no longer alone in the way she felt, it wasn’t just her and more importantly, maybe it wasn’t her fault. Yes, it may have made me look weaker as a person of authority by admitting weakness but stronger as a human being and I’d argue as a real role model. Yes, the senior leadership team undoubtedly found out but surprisingly no issues there either. Yes, I believe it was exactly the right thing to do.

Thankfully from her reaction, it was obvious that she needed someone who wasn’t afraid of the illness or the stigma. Someone who she could come and talk to when her friends/family thought she was attention seeking. Someone who’d been there when the doctor suggested Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the possibility of medication. Someone to say you’re not mad, crazy or nuts you’re unwell at the moment and the medical professionals know best.

Being a Role Model

Whether you like it or not you are a real tangible role model to your pupils. They look up to you. Even on those dreary days when they are all being so annoying they still look up to you, in many cases you are the constant in their lives, not just someone but that someone for whatever reason cares about them.

What does this burden of role-modelhood entail? I’m not going to tell you that teachers must live perfect lives but I do believe as teachers we form the pillars on which societies are formed. As role models, we should share our adversities and moreover our triumphs over them.

Role models who triumph over adversity are commonplace in our schools and in wider society, whether it’s a triumph through the tribulations of living in a slum or overcoming a physical ailment for sporting glory. However triumphant roles models with respect to mental health are few and far between, this is mirrored and is culturally similar to wider society so having them within schools is an absolute must.

Where teachers are fortunate enough to have robust mental health it’s important for them to portray their understanding and acceptance of the conditions that plague some many others.

We can only hope that the next generation will live up to the values of the role models they see in our schools. Perpetuating through society, changing the world for the better.

This is from a chapter I wrote for the following book as you have made it to the end, it’s available here for a discounted price thanks to School Books Direct.

Mental Health and Well being in Schools.




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