Mental Health In Schools: A Perspective

“People would rather live a comfortable lie than an uncomfortable truth” – Anon

As today is the last day of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, I thought that I would give my perspective on mental health at school. All names apart from my own have been changed (I’m pretty sure your birth name is not Black Unicorn – Ed).

The first person I will talk about is Camille. Camille was a student in one of my forms. She was a delight to teach, polite to all, a model student, a top musician and a good friend. She was often described as quiet and that, in teaching speak, is too often a synonym for anonymous. I had a good relationship with her as I often ate my lunch in my classroom as did Camille and her friends whilst they did their work.

One afternoon registration before a games afternoon, Camille asked to stay behind and speak to me. She told me she didn’t want to participate in games because she had been self-harming and didn’t want the games teachers to see. Why would a high-achieving, polite student, a model student with good friends, secretly self-harm? There isn’t one answer and my theorising on the topic will not push the debate forward.

I will give some observations as to why Camille spoke to me (I was the first adult she spoke to), which I think are important:

1. I was available

One of the sayings that is often bandied about in American football scouting circles is ‘the best ability is availability’. The same is true in teaching. My teaching mentor told me that I should try and adhere to what she called the ‘5 principle’. All it meant was being in your class room five minutes before a break started and finished, so if lunchtime was 12-1, she recommended staying in your room until at least 1205 and being there at 1255. She said that I’d be amazed at how many pupils would be there and how beneficial it would be to developing relationships with them. She was (as she was with so many things) absolutely right. The time spent investing in those relationships were, I believe, a big reason why Camille felt comfortable in talking to me.

2. I listened and didn’t wait to speak

One of the banes of my existence is watching people talk at each other and not to each other. Any person that tells you something personal does not necessarily need or want you to provide an analogous example to show that you can empathise with their situation. What they want is for you to listen. You don’t even need to respond. And if you do respond, try not to start with ‘that reminds me of something that happened to me’. With respect, another person’s disclosure is not the time to begin your own therapy.

3. I accepted her truth

I am a big fan of this image truth

The reason is simple: truth is often subject to individual experience. What do I mean in the context of Camille? The truth was that she was all of the positive things that I outlined above. The truth was that she also had her struggles. The problem is people too often believe the truth a person projects and express incredulity when another truth about the same person challenges their experience of them. This can manifest itself through dismissive statements like ‘I wish I had their “problems”‘, ‘if they are struggling now, they will really struggle when real life comes for them’ and my least favourite: ‘I wouldn’t have thought that they would be the type to struggle’. What does that even mean? I didn’t realise there was a type that we associated with struggle. If someone could send me a picture of that type of person, I’d be grateful (Dear Mr Unicorn. Your request for your last statement to be in, and I quote you here, “sarcasm font”, was rejected because, as we have told you, on many occasions, the font simply doesn’t exist – Ed)

4. I invested in her as I tried to do with all of the pupils

One of the best things about being a teacher is it allows you to fill your social diary. I have been to many excellent drama productions and orchestras, as well as sporting fixtures, debates and many other things that involved my pupils. Seeing pupils in a context outside of the classroom – and having them see me outside of the classroom – was an important component in developing the trusting relationships needed when a disclosure was made.

5. I was honest

I remember a pupil telling me about a situation that they were going through and I responded with, ‘that sucks’. After a moment of shock from the pupil (I said the ‘s’ word!) they responded with ‘yeah, it does’. The anecdote is small, but, I hope serves to illustrate that honesty is the best way to build real relationships.

The problem is that so many teachers are dealing with mental-health issues themselves that it can be a step too far to be there for the pupils as well. Teaching is a performance. I believe the best teachers would make fantastic actors (Hugh Jackman and Sylvester Stallone were two who made the leap) and the reason is because teachers have to wear so many hats:

  • Subject expert
  • Behaviour-management specialist
  • Counsellor
  • Role-model/inspiration

There are more, but you get the idea. The pressure on teachers is incredible. I was in teaching for nine years and the job became more difficult each year. Helicopter parents (I’ve included a quiz so you can see if you are one here); a demand for ever-improving outcomes with often diminished resources (a good line-manager is important here and I was lucky that my head of department was one of the best managers and people that I ever had the pleasure of interacting with) and being asked to take on more responsibility (often without pay) on top of a full teaching timetable. It is a time-consuming job (by the way, my experience tells me that 55 hours, as the article I linked to claims, is very conservative and even if it isn’t, it translates to roughly 40 extra days a year of work, so maybe they have earned the extra holiday).

Quick aside: I once recorded the amount of hours that I had to do as a rugby coach and pointed out to a senior manager that the amount I was paid for it worked out at £2.08 an hour. Their response: ‘Don’t think about it in those terms’. I’m reminded here of Frederick Douglass:

…He [Douglass’s slave owner] would, after counting the money…ask, “Is this all?” He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes give me  six cents, to encourage me. It had the opposite effect…I always felt worse for having received any thing; for I feared that the giving me a few cents would ease his conscience, and make him feel himself to be a pretty honorable sort of robber.

In any industry, being overworked to the point where it stifles intellectual curiosity, underappreciated and under-rewarded will not just lead to mental-health problems. It will make good people quit.

I was strongly criticised when I handed my notice in by some. The school staffroom can be a toxic place and many people will agree with a person because passive agreement is  easier than active disagreement. Others understood and supported me. The truth was I had reached a place where staying was damaging me. Not all of my line managers were great, I felt stifled and boxed in and I realised that as young as I was, this could not be my experience into my mid 60s. I wouldn’t make it. So I got out.

The sad thing is my story is not an isolated one in education. The number of new teachers leaving the profession is unsustainable and, without serious introspection, is going to lead to even more teacher shortages. It’s a fallacy to believe it is the bad teachers that are leaving. I was graded as ‘outstanding’  in my last six observations and I am no longer teaching. The elephant in the room is that there are too many in society who expect teachers to be automatons. I hear some of the things that are said to, or about teachers and it becomes clear that they are a convenient punching bag when it suits. The narrative around mental health is changing, but, at the current pace, by the time schools get a handle on it, pupils are just as likely to be taught by an actual automaton as a real teacher.

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