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Why should teachers talk about mental health with students and colleagues?

Clare can now talk with calm reflection about the moment she decided to end her life. She remembers feeling as if she were living in a sort of twilight zone where nothing made sense: she was being shunned by colleagues and faced losing her job as a teacher.

Things had spiralled out of control after Clare was signed off work with stress-related depression. When invited back to school to talk about when she might return, managers tried to renegotiate her contract. Clare immediately sought legal advice. “I felt isolated, bullied and harassed.

“My managers were asking other staff members about me and I was becoming increasingly anxious by what was happening. Instead of supporting me and making reasonable adjustments to the fact that I was off with stress, the school’s response was completely punitive.”

Part of the problem is that mental illness in teaching is stigmatised, says Clare. “If you reveal that you are stressed, it is seen as a great weakness – that you are just not up to the job.”

Figures published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) this year showed that more than a third of school and college staff have noticed a rise in mental health issues among colleagues in the past two years. Despite this, 68% kept their problems a secret from their bosses.

In a recent Teacher Support Network survey, the majority of teachers (89%) blamed excessive workloads for their mental health problems, and 40% wouldn’t talk to anyone at work about mental illness because was seen as “a sign of weakness”.

People worry about being seen as not good enough, says Tim, a teacher who retired early due to stress and anxiety. “If you are suffering from work-related stress you are especially reluctant to seek the support of senior management for fear that your complaints could be seen as an indictment of their management.”

David Ambler, ATL district secretary in Birmingham, says mental health problems are also stigmatised because of worries about how this will make a school look. “To reduce the stigmatisation of mental illness requires more than simply a change of attitude among headteachers and senior management in school. It requires a change of attitude among the general public and parents to understand that teaching is a stressful job and sometimes teachers go under or need treatment.”

When Michael was signed off with stress-related depression, he found that some colleagues were understanding but others were not. Teachers worry about the impact of admitting to a mental health problem on their career, he says. The headteacher who employed Michael in his current post said that she was taking a huge risk and put him on a six-month trial period. “Employers are not as sure about mental illness as they would be about physical illness,” he says. “If I broke my leg, for example, and came back to work I don’t think I would be trialled in the same way.”

But this needn’t be the case if the stigma around the issue of mental illness is tackled and the right support is put in place. Rachel, who has experienced depression for years but hasn’t taken time off work, puts her ability to keep teaching without taking any extensive leave down to the support of her senior leadership team and colleagues.

“I am able to talk to all my senior management team and have good friends on the staff who also know and are supportive. My experience of mental health, if anything, has done the opposite of holding me back. But if I had not received the understanding and support I did then I would almost certainly have ended up off sick and probably left teaching.”

Nor is this just an issue of doing the right thing and supporting people experiencing mental health problems – it’s also essential to their recovery. Alison Stark, a senior teacher at a Dutch secondary school, who is off sick with work-related burnout, says there is a more open culture to mental health in the Netherlands.

“The first step is admitting that you have a problem. I talked about my problems with a friend and just being able to say out loud that I am struggling helped me accept things,” she says.

Her school has been patient and supportive – rather than worrying about what to say, colleagues have sent her cards, flowers and message of support. “It is important that schools have a supportive management who are understanding. Headteachers need to support management and create an atmosphere in which teachers can talk about it [mental illness].”

For Stark, the most supportive person has been her deputy head, who has sought solutions by asking her what she needs and what would aid her recovery. “They say, ‘do you want me to allow you home access to email or not? Should I block it and protect you?’”

An openness about mental illness could also help students by ensuring they have positive role models. Kelly, who just started in a girls’ school, is recovering from an eating disorder and used to self-harm. She says stress from teaching can cause a flare-up in food-control behaviours and she has visible scars on her arm. “I am what you could call a normal weight so it’s not obvious I struggled with bulimia, anorexia and excessive exercising,” she says.

Kelly wants to share her experiences to show her pupils that no one should let mental health problems define them, but she worries about the repercussions. “I worry that my school would not be supportive of my talking about my experiences as they would be concerned about the potential backlash from parents. If students mis-reported the story at home some parents may be concerned about my capacity to cope.”

• Most of the names in this article have been changed to protect the teachers who shared their stories.

The Tackling mental health stigma in schools series is funded by Time to Change. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.