I don’t tend to dabble in serious matters very often but, as it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and it’s almost a year since my diagnosis, I think now is an appropriate time to discuss my experiences with mental health so far. If my reflections upon this topic can reassure someone or encourage at least one person to speak out and ask for help, then that’s incredible. Alternatively, if writing this post only aids me to reflect upon my own struggles with mental health, that’s still a massive step and I’m proud of myself for that.
Teaching with Anxiety and Depression
Let’s get one thing straight: there is no career that is a walk in the park when you suffer from a mental health issue. In any job, there will be an extra layer of difficulty to trudge through, whether that’s the overwhelming – and sometimes paralysing – dread of getting out of bed in the morning or the inability to feel in control to any degree of the day ahead.
Where I think teaching is particularly tricky in these circumstances, however, is the fact that you are constantly acting all day. If you’re having a bad day, you have to leave it in the wings and be ready to step out to perform in front of your children, regardless of what you may be experiencing. The fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality is draining and you may reach the end of the school day with an even lower mood, even if you succeeded in masking your emotions. Of course, there will also be times when you simply do not have the energy to perform or perhaps your mask slips and you must rush back to the dressing room to find another prop to disguise yourself. This leads to a greater sense of self-loathing as you shun yourself for not being able to suppress your feelings, or lack thereof.
My Symptoms and Diagnosis
In order to share my strategies for coping with anxiety and depression as a teacher, it’s probably useful to explain the context of my mental health. At university, during my second year, I began having sustained low moods and a temporary lack of emotion. When this happened, I would withdraw myself from certain activities or groups of people, not seeing the point or feeling an inability to cope in certain contexts. I’d spring back fairly quickly and would think no more of the situation, resuming my usual – fairly sociable – habits, until it would crop up again. I continued this pattern through my third year of uni and during the majority of my PGCE year. As the demands of the PGCE year became apparent, I started to sleep a lot more, reduced contact with my friends and became anxious making plans in the future. The latter was due to the fact I didn’t feel I had a future. I just didn’t feel I could cope with a future. I struggled to reply to messages of any kind and felt like I couldn’t do anything at the weekend other than prepare for school the following week. At no point during the course did anyone tell me this was necessary – I believe it was just my attempt to detract myself from the notion that something might have been wrong.
One day, the way I was behaving and feeling resulted in my girlfriend not wanting to wake up and get out of bed. My depression had made her so miserable that it had relegated her to the same cocooned state that I had tried to adopt. This was the trigger that shocked me into attempting to tackle how I was feeling. (My girlfriend is an incredibly active and social individual so I instantly recognised this as unusual for her.)
I emailed the college counsellor and set up some sessions to discuss how I was feeling but I always felt like I left the sessions none-the-wiser. After a week of driving to my placement school, with tears inexplicably streaming down my face, struggling to think of anything other than the words “I can’t cope” repeating themselves over in my head, I broke down to my placement mentor. She told me to book a GP appointment and I (fortunately) managed to secure one immediately. It was at this point that the doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and depression and prescribed me anti-depressants. To be honest, I felt relieved. I was confused as to who I was becoming and resented myself for this. Being able to put a name to what was happening to me made the whole experience slightly less daunting.
The GP signed me off for two weeks. I contacted my course manager and personal tutor to let them know what had happened. My course manager asked me to pop in to see her. As I passed the days waiting for my meeting, I spent a long time mulling over whether I’d ever be a teacher. I mused about the idea of being a teaching assistant but still wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope with that. My PGCE course manager was incredibly supportive and reassured me that my health would come first and everything else would follow. She helped me rationalise my thoughts and aided me in breaking down the rest of the course into manageable, realistic chunks. All the while, the anti-depressants began to lift my mood. To this day, I’m very thankful that I did not have any horrible side effects from my medication. There are a range of potential side effects that must make this experience even more difficult. I’m so lucky in that respect.
Upon my return to placement, I had a great team of people supporting me. I had a clearer view of the future and had gained strategies from cognitive behavioural therapy in order to rationalise my emotional thinking. I completed my placement and began the induction process at my current school.
My Personal Strategies
I managed to pass my PGCE year and have had an excellent two terms as a Newly Qualified Teacher. On occasion, I still feel low or fuzzy or cloudy, but the majority of the time, I’m able to pull myself out of this place by following some strategies. These are not groundbreaking and might not be the best approach for others but I hope anyone who sometimes feels similar to the way I do can recognise that there is a way to make things better.
->Make sure someone knows what you’re going through
I remember striding into my headteachers’ office with overcompensatory confidence and saying I needed to tell her something. I closed the office door and I’m fairly sure I blurted out the whole of ‘My Symptoms and Diagnosis’ within one sentence and explained that I was still capable of teaching. Upon reflection, it’s perhaps sad that I felt the need to justify that I was still okay to do my job. My headteacher(s) never made me feel as if I were not competent…I just didn’t think it would be acceptable to teach with a mental health condition. The headteacher I spoke to told me that I should say something whenever I felt I needed support and honestly that’s all I needed to hear. Knowing that someone has my back is a huge relief.
->Write down your own positive reflections and the feedback of others
It’s all too easy to fall into a spiral of self-doubt. When this occurs, it’s incredibly beneficial to cast a glance back over some evidence that proves you are doing okay. Sometimes this can be a post-it note you wrote for yourself at the end of a good day or perhaps it’s a message a colleague sent you reminding you that you can do this.
->Be more than just a teacher
Despite some people still believing this to be the case, teaching is not a 9am-3:30pm job. It’s all too easy to spend many hours reflecting, preparing and marking. When I feel productive at work, I do feel really good about myself. But if it’s a cloudy day, every thing I do at work leaves me feeling lower. Therefore, it’s vital to embrace other things in your life that you enjoy doing too. I love spending time with my girlfriend, going jogging and doing some creative writing. I loved the opportunity to perform in the Railway Children in February half term and am currently enjoying re-reading my favourite novels. Partaking in these activities doesn’t detract from my ability as a teacher. If anything, they enrich my life experiences and therefore benefit my class and myself as a practitioner.
->Turn the volume up
Music holds a massive influence over my mood. If I sit in silence in the classroom at the beginning of the day when I’m feeling a bit ‘cloudy’, my negative mood seems to be exacerbated. In order to resolve this dilemma, I make sure playing my music nice and loud is one of the first things I do when I arrive at school. My favourite things to listen to this year include jazz covers of pop songs, guilty pleasure Sophie Ellis Bextor and all time favourite acoustic musician Jeremy Kay. I find it a lot easier to get out of a negative mind set when I’ve got some upbeat music to lean on.
->Take a break and have some fun
You could easily get swallowed up in trials and tribulations of school life. During my placements, I tended to put my head down and tried to plough through all my work as diligently and successfully as I could. When I joined my current school, the people I worked with helped me realise that I’m at my most successful when I’m happy and recharged. My TA asked me to partake in an ‘After Eight Challenge’ the other day and, despite the fact my white shirt had a number of chocolate smears on it for the rest of the day, I had a fantastic time. Every Monday and Friday some of the staff hold sensory circuits for a selection of children. I try my best to join in because it’s honestly one of the highlights of my week bouncing on trampolines, attempting to do front rolls and failing to make the hoop rotate 360 degrees around my waist, all the while cackling with the wonderful people who arrange the activities. Naturally, it’s not just about letting loose and having fun with staff members. I try my upmost best to create engaging and exciting lessons for my children and the times that I succeed are the times that I feel at my happiest.
->Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
This is certainly one of the most effective strategies I have discovered. It seems so very obvious upon consideration but is much harder to realise when you’re in the thick of the fog. Whenever I start to recognise the feelings of self doubt or inexplicable sadness creeping in I take a moment to ask myself this very question. If I can think of a genuine answer to this question then I allow it to occupy a tiny ‘worry space’ in my head so that I can begin to develop a written plan to deal with the problem. If I have absolutely no response to this question, or I recognise that the answer is ridiculous or irrational, however, I make myself aware of this fact and the feeling fades.
Looking To The Future
I still have my down days. Perhaps eventually they will be gone but for now I’m glad – and proud – that I have developed a number of strategies in order to ensure that my metal health does not negatively affect the job that I adore doing to any large degree. I’m incredibly grateful for those who support me knowingly or unknowingly through the times in which I struggle with my mental health. I couldn’t imagine doing any other job. It’s crazy to think that only a year ago I was thinking about packing it all in because I didn’t think I’d be able to cope and I owe so much to the people who got me to this point.
I’m so glad that, thanks to inspirational shows such as Mind Over Marathon, awareness for mental health is increasing greatly and I hope I can continue to raise the profile in my own small way to ensure that those who are struggling with their mental health realise they are not alone and that there is a way to make things better.
It really terrifies me that there are growing rates of mental health concerns with primary school children, too. Some children might be suffering without realising that there’s anything actually wrong. There was a time when I believed that I was just a miserable, hopeless person who couldn’t cope or see the good in anything. I dread to think there are children who don’t realise there is more to life than their mental health condition(s).
I’m very excited to be attending training to become a Youth Mental Health First Aider in the near future. The intention of the training is to help spot early symptoms of children suffering with a mental health issue, support those who may be experiencing these mental health issues, help further reduce the stigma and to help promote the wellbeing and protective factors associated with mental health issues.
Anyway, I have waffled on too long. If you recognise any of the ways I was feeling/sometimes feel, I urge you to speak to someone. Anyone. Get some advice and support from friends, family or professionals, whether for a preventative measure or for a chance to find some sort of treatment. As my ridiculously supportive girlfriend often reminds me, “You’ve got this!”