How teachers can manage and promote mental health

J Dutton

J has been teaching for the last seven years in the Midlands. A History specialist, she has also taught ICT, Citizenship and Government and Politics. She’s a passionate educationalist and enjoys reading around both her subject and issues in teaching. In her spare time, J enjoys cycling with her daughter, swimming and exploring the local area. On a more solitary level she enjoys reading with tastes ranging from The Girl on the Train to books about Irish history. She has also tries, not always successfully, to bake and craft things! To date this has included a dinosaur cushion and a duvet-sized quilt. J is a supporter of #WomenEd.

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This is a topic that is close to my heart as I have had a lot of close family experience mental health concerns. Their treatment and reception by others has varied. I have also watched others struggle to ask for and accept help and support for fear of the stigma or reaction from others. The impact that this delay has had on them has cost them their education in some instances, their marriage and job in others. As a teacher, I also want my students to feel comfortable and confident - teenage years are tough enough as it is!

"This sort of prejudice feeds into an unwillingness or reluctance to share with friends, colleagues, family members of neighbours."

When we think about managing mental health, too often I think we forget our own. We teach students about different mental health concerns, from generalised anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder. We teach our students about some of the varied symptoms and effects that these health concerns can have. Perhaps we have a mental health awareness day in our school. But how often do we ask colleagues “How are you?” and have an environment where they feel comfortable to say more than just the standard “Okay, you?” Are we open about our own mental health? My personal feeling, and experience is that too often people feel afraid to be totally honest in that answer.

This might not seem surprising when we consider that Time to Change found that 87% of respondents reported a negative impact of stigma and discrimination, despite one in four people suffering from a mental health concern in any given year. This one in four means there is a high chance we know someone or work with someone who is managing a mental health problem.

This stigma impacts on the willingness of people to seek help or to talk about mental health concerns, for fear of being on the receiving end of discrimination. The survey also found that 11% of people said they would not want to live next to someone who had a mental health problem. This sort of prejudice feeds into an unwillingness or reluctance to share with friends, colleagues, family members of neighbours. With depression and anxiety being the most commonly reported disorders, and one in 10 meeting the diagnostic criteria, these are health concerns that can be severely impacted by isolation and a fear of others 'finding out'.

My desire is not simply to open dialogue but to help create an environment in which teachers, who are in incredibly stressful jobs, feel they have the confidence and support to be open. To share. To seek support and help. I found my support through both my work and the wider community, and I both realise and appreciate that I am lucky in this regard. I recognise not every teacher has this safety and security network and this is something that needs work and focus.

This feeds directly into our teaching. We have a duty of care to our students and we should be considering how we help prepare them for life after school (I am assured that such a life exists!). Not only do we need to consider how we educate our students about mental health but we need to consider how we support them in managing their own mental health.

There are things we can do to help look after ourselves, ranging from medication to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. Starting with medication, I am in no way medically trained, but I have seen antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication help get people to a stage/place whereby they can begin to put other strategies in place to provide long-term help. This will not be appropriate for everyone but for many it can be the first step towards managing their mental health.

A big part of mindfulness and CBT is recognising that feelings are feelings and thoughts are thoughts. We can sometimes get caught up in believing that our feelings are true (seeing them as thoughts) and this in turn affects our actions and behaviour. It is not easy to break this cycle, and from my personal experience I would recommend seeking support in utilising CBT techniques and mindfulness. Many GP practices will offer this, rather than reading about it online and trying to do it to yourself. CBT encourages you to look at your behaviour and actions to determine why you are doing things; is it because of facts or is it based on feelings? This can be particularly useful for those who are suffering from OCD or anxiety-based health concerns. Stripping actions back to the cycle of thoughts and feelings that preceded this and recognising that some anxiety, for example in refusing to carry out a check or ritual, is normal and will eventually peter out. It is not a short term fix and requires both engagement and a commitment to carrying out the work outside of sessions. However, from personal experience I have seen it have considerable impact.

Mindfulness encourages you to focus not just on your actions but on your body and mind, being aware of what you are doing and being conscious of how you feel. Part of this is to try and encourage relaxation by making you focus on yourself and being more aware. Another key part of it is to help you identify behaviour and patterns of thinking that may not be helpful. The idea being to see that our thoughts do not control us, for example by focusing carefully on our actions in getting ready to leave we should be better able to challenge doubting thoughts that encourage us to carry out checking rituals. This may feel like yet another task to add to an already busy day - this is how I felt when it was suggested to me. However, while at first it felt that I needed to schedule the time out of my day, now it is something that I feel is embedded into what I do. By being more aware of me, my thoughts, how I feel physically and what I am doing I feel less pressured. With schedules, deadlines, marking and everything else that comes with teaching, taking some time out to learn to become more present and aware can be of enormous benefit.

"While at first I needed to schedule the time out of my day, now it is something that I feel is embedded into what I do."

As a practical tool for teachers who accept too much blame, an excellent and effective task is called the 'blame pie'. Here. you draw a circle or a pie on a piece of paper. On it you write a situation or a scenario; for example leaving the house. On the pie you write all the people who play a role in this situation. This means that if your concern relates to a fear of leaving the door unlocked you might note all the others who have a key and leave the house after you. This helps identify 'blame' in the sense that it encourages you to break the cycle of feeling that you are solely responsible for everything. This can be done physically on paper or in your head. Again, it is a therapy that takes time, effort and work.

I certainly don't consider that I have all the answers, not even close, but I have considerable experience of living with mental health concerns and supporting those with theirs. The final thing that I would suggest for teachers seeking to better manage their mental health is to keep a journal or diary. This can be a memory dump whereby you write down the things that happened during the week or the negative thoughts that you have. This is done with a view to writing and not reviewing. The other option is a more positive journal in which you focus on identifying the things you have achieved or succeeded at during the week. Either with a view to revisiting when you are lacking confidence or to encourage you to focus on the successes that you have achieved.

As I said, I don't have all the answers, but I'd like to thing I do my bit to chip away at prejudice and mental health discrimination, as well as providing a sympathetic ear both online and in person. I would like to encourage you to feel confident to share your mental health concerns and start to open the dialogue. I do not pretend that this is easy, but small steps can start to make a change, both for ourselves and our students.

How do you promote mental health in your school? Share your advice below.

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