The importance of mental-health management

Libby Seery

Libby has a wealth of experience, having worked for many years in the private sector. Over the last five years, her client work has expanded into areas such as mental health charities, drug and alcohol services and the NHS. She is an integrative practitioner, drawing on several approaches to help facilitate profound, positive change, whilst providing a safe, non-judgemental and confidential space for clients.

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Since around the year 2000, teaching has often been cited as one of the most stressful professions to be in. In 2010 the NUT recorded an enormous 81.2% of teachers admitting they experienced some kind of stress, anxiety or depression at work.

By December 2012, the Guardian found increasing numbers of stress-related absences were being taken across 15 different local authorities; often as much as half of the time taken off by teachers was stress related. I often have discussions with teachers who feel that mental health conditions are directly affecting their ability to successfully perform their roles.

With long outside-of-work hours, and even the official language used, it is unsurprising that teachers become susceptible to stress and anxiety. In what other circumstances would the word “satisfactory” actually mean the opposite? Thankfully, the terminology has been changed, but the expectations haven't. “Outstanding” should mean exactly that. Something unique, innovative; pioneering.

Ideally, in my line of work, we believe in being kinder to ourselves through our internal conversations. Constantly striving to be truly outstanding upsets the already-biased work/life balance.

Don't get me wrong; striving to achieve potential is wholeheartedly encouraged by all therapists. However, this must be personal potential, rather than something measured against others.

The most important resource in the classroom is you.

Teachers are often told this affirmation; particularly when starting out. Ultimately, this is a time when they are, in fact, working the most hours; whilst spending some of their lives studying, they're also pushing to be the very best teacher they can. Writing whole work schemes, designing seating plans, spotting improvements and reacting to them immediately. Not to mention trying to forge relationships with new classes and control behaviour.

Of course, many continue this practise and push throughout their careers and, as such, are in a constant state of flux - of reflection, critical thinking and often self-criticising. In fact, many of the teachers with whom I work recognise that whilst they are acutely aware of the pressures they are putting on students; they forget to attend to their own needs. Until they snap.

This approach ultimately propagates a culture of stigmatising mental illness. Because the classes will have seen teachers' stress levels rising across time (and in many cases, the last person to recognise the symptoms is the stressed person), they will build up negative associations with stress.

In order to teach problem solving, you should be demonstrating it

By demonstrating a proactive attitude towards dealing with mental imbalances, from the top down; it fosters a culture of recognising these feelings are normal, finding ways to cope with them and then progressing. Which is what you're teaching students every day.

For example, in a science or any design lesson where learners plan a course of action, you ask students to evaluate their method afterwards. How could you have tightened the variables? Was it a fair test? What can you do better? Learners who problem solve must also be praised for recognising problems and dealing with them.

And yet, with around 6% of my clients being from the teaching profession, we can ascertain that many teachers find it difficult to implement this same problem solving system to their own mental health. Understandably so, in cases when support is not available from the top down.

In some cases, teacher therapy is funded by the schools and others by the teachers themselves. Around 45% of those suffering from mental illness recover by accessing therapy, coming up with strategies to cope with workload management and prevent anxiety from eventually taking over.

Many teachers with busy schedules and stress or anxiety issues have explained a preference for online video-counselling. One primary school teacher from Corby said: "With answering questions and dealing with face-to-face enquiries from students all day, I find sitting in a quiet room in my own home the most nurturing environment. This way, I am most open to being honest with both myself and my therapist."

With the recent SEN reformations shifting some responsibility towards parents and a top down support network, I hope to see more teachers address anxiety issues early enough to use them as a positive, forward-thinking experience.

Have you experienced therapy as a teacher? Share your experiences below.

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