In retrospect, I can accept that I’ve struggled with my mental health since my teenage years. However, I was too wrapped up in my particular brand of toxic masculinity to talk about it at the time with my parents. Being angry towards other people on the street made me feel better about myself, masking my anxiety and sadness. I stumbled into adulthood doing way too many of the things people do to feel good, to numb the fact I often felt awful.
I found direction and purpose through my work in education, but spending nearly a decade absorbing the trauma our children live with was taking its toll on me.
Reading and writing allowed me to unlearn the ideas that stopped me from talking about my mental health. I was open about my feelings with those close to me. While I wholeheartedly encouraged others to seek professional help, I hadn’t quite made that step myself.
Then last July things got really bad. The passive suicidal ideation I’d lived with for years became active. I tried to take my own life. Getting to that point and then finding my way back made me determined to stay alive, for myself, for the people that love me and for the children I supported.
How did it get to this stage?
After five years working with teenagers who had been expelled from mainstream education, I came to understand that early intervention is key to giving our most marginalised, vulnerable young people a chance, so I moved to a primary school in the community where I was born and still live. A 2014 study confirmed almost half the children in our community live below the poverty line. The school’s very recent Ofsted report states that its number of “disadvantaged children” and children with special educational needs are “significantly above the national average”.
Like most of us working in education, I regularly went above and beyond for our children: building Lego towers late into the evening with a child while police attended the family home to arrest an abusive parent; taking a child to and from the boxing gym where I coach, to channel his justifiable anger he feels and realise his fantastic; advocating and interpreting for a Spanish-speaking mother, perplexed by the bureaucratic nonsense that meant she couldn’t access the support her family desperately needed.
My job was gruelling, it drained me emotionally and physically, but I loved what I did. I loved our children. I loved the majority of my colleagues because they are amazing, committed, open-minded people. I loved working in the community which, for better or worse, turned me into an adult. I went to school with the parents of some of the children I supported, I knew plenty of others from being out on the roads as a boy, and I loved having a chat with them in the pub over or at the supermarket over the weekend. I felt like we were all in it together.
After attempting suicide in July, I wanted to show everyone that my struggles with mental health didn’t define me. I wanted to tell people how bad things got and celebrate the people who helped me recover. So, in January I wrote a piece about how my football team kept me afloat and it was published. The response was so positive, from my friends and colleagues, and from people online who were struggling themselves. I had taken ownership of the things that haunted me and felt empowered.
Soon after, I was called into a meeting with my employer. I was told my piece had come to their attention, and that they wanted to support me, which I welcomed. I was then told that I had to remove the piece from social media and from the publication which ran it, because “it could bring the school into disrepute and/or cause offence”. That feeling of empowerment slipped away.
I resolved that I wouldn’t take the piece down. This led to another meeting, with my union supporting me. My employer maintained their position and I made mine clear; I was not prepared to remove my writing. The juxtaposition of being offered support for my mental health with the insistence that I take the piece down was difficult for me to accept. I didn’t state I was a teacher in my writing, let alone name the school. There was no suggestion from them that my mental health had impacted my ability to do my job. I was reassured that my work had always been exemplary. My employer told me that if a parent came across my writing, it might cause them to lose confidence in me and the school.
I want to be clear here: I wasn’t sacked. The situation I found myself in triggered another serious depressive episode. Thankfully, I sought professional help and saw my doctor. During my recovery, I had plenty of time to think about my future and concluded that my position at the school was untenable, so I resigned from my post.
The Teacher Wellbeing Index, carried out in 2018, found that 31 per cent of education professionals experienced a mental health issue that year. 76 per cent experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work. Perhaps more importantly, 65 per cent say they wouldn’t feel confident in disclosing mental health problems to their employer, and 74 per cent say they don’t have enough guidance about mental health at work.
While mental health issues are common amongst education professionals, it’s clearly a taboo to approach our employers in seek of help. Are we afraid of negative judgement, being deemed weak and having our ability to do our job questioned? Do we worry that our employers will see it as a poor reflection of the school? Had I approached my employer and disclosed my issues before choosing to write about them, would they have given me a cuddle but told me to keep it quiet?
Government policy is having the dual effect of making the lives of the children we support and teach harder, while making it increasingly difficult to do our jobs. Paradoxically, health education, with special emphasis on mental health, will be compulsory in schools from 2020. Children will be taught strategies to build emotional resilience, and to recognise when their peers are struggling. Does that mean they will be able to recognise when the adults who work with them are struggling too? If that were true, perhaps some really radical conversations around mental health might take place.