Do you speak up about mental health?
February 7th is Time to Talk Day, an annual event spearheaded by magnificent stigma-squashing charity Time to Change. It’s a day to speak our minds and talk about mental health related issues, writes Natasha Devon, campaigner and writer.
In the education world we are way ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking progressively and compassionately about mental health. Indeed, as someone who has one foot in education and the other in the media, I often get a false impression of the amount of stigma there is in the wider world.
The elephant in the room
Having said that, in schools and colleges there is a massive mental health elephant in the room: teacher stress. It doesn’t pull on the heart strings in the same way as children’s psychological distress. This means it is therefore relatively unexplored. There have been a few attempts to shed light on the topic. The TES, NEU and Teacher Toolkit regularly post content on teacher wellbeing. In 2017, BBC’s Inside Out programme it was revealed 70% of London-based teachers have taken time off work for a physical or mental health problem they attribute directly to the stress of their job.
In May 2016 the Guardian published a piece by me, which was shared more than 8,000 times. All of the above outlets are, however, arguably those preaching to the choir. Search the so-called ‘mainstream’ media and you’ll find their content suspiciously bereft of any concern for the mental health and happiness of the teaching profession.
The well has run dry
The rapid decline in teacher wellbeing can be attributed to a range of factors, including the lack of support following cuts to teaching assistants, increased paperwork, longer hours, rapid changes in job-spec, larger class sizes, consequent behavioural issues and fewer resources – yet all have a common root. This is all, ultimately, about cuts to funding.
Despite all their impressive sounding rhetoric about ‘prioritising’ mental health and so-called ‘parity of esteem’ (the notion that mental health issues should be treated as urgently as their physical counterparts) our current government are one characterised by their ability to ‘trim the fat’ when it comes to the public sector. Except a long time ago they ran out of fat and started sawing away at the meat.
In a climate where schools are having to ask parents to donate toilet paper, it’s little wonder there’s no spare cash for any initiatives designed to nurture teacher wellbeing. As a consequence, 40,000 teachers quit the profession in 2016 and almost 1/3 of newly qualified teachers leave within 5 years of qualifying.
Well, well, well
Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently announced an ‘integrated recruitment and retention strategy’. This will include ‘simplifying’ the process of applying to become a teacher and introducing bursaries. He also briefly mentions ‘workload’, although in the vaguest of terms, describing it as a continuing ‘crucial battle’.
All of this, in my opinion, fails to understand teachers. Extra money is lovely and enough money to live on is absolutely crucial. However, no one goes into teaching for financial reasons.
Yet, you can’t pour from an empty cup and teacher burnout is a real and present problem. There are some strategies I have seen institutions employ to attempt to stem the tide of poor staff mental health. Coventry University London, has a staff charter to which everyone must adhere and which dictates that work related emails should not be sent outside of a specified time period. Many schools ensure teachers have access to yoga clubs and mindfulness sessions, which undoubtedly help combat the symptoms of stress.
The time has come, however, to look at causes. The education system is no longer fit for purpose. Endless directives from policy makers as various Secretaries of State have attempted to leave their mark have driven teachers to distraction, yet the curriculum remains, at its heart, broadly the same as it was 100 years ago.
In other words, we’re endlessly polishing what has become distinctly turd-like. Mojo-less teachers are trying to reconcile an outdated system with the realities of modern life with little or no support from (also cut) social services or the wider community.
Only a fundamental revolution in the education system will ever truly address the issue. Maybe it’s ‘time to talk’ about that.
Natasha Devon MBE is a campaigner and educator.
She visits schools throughout the UK delivering talks and conducting research on mental health, body image and gender equality.
Also, don’t miss the interview Ross McGill did with her on the Teacher Toolkit podcast.