The Secret Illness
The subject of mental health is considered taboo in most professions. It is the thing that you don’t talk about mainly because of the stigma attached to it.
Last night, Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, explored the effect of mental illness among some of the most highly paid people around. In ‘Football’s Suicide Secret’ he spoke to players who had tried to take their lives, some more than once, the family of one who had killed himself and the effect it had on their families and their futures. The programme ended with a meeting with David Bernstein who was at the time the chairman of the Football Association during which he assured Carlisle that the well being of players was of great concern and that things to support them were going to be put in place. To date there is a hotline for them to use.
It got me thinking about the teaching profession. Like the death of a footballer, suicides of teachers often reach media headlines. Invariably the news item will include mention of pressure, either from outside inspections like Ofsted or the teacher’s own performance that having been highlighted by a HT, drove them to take their lives.
We never see a follow-up item telling us what actions have been taken after the investigations. Once again, mental health is put back into it’s dark box until the next time. As a sufferer from anxiety, I can tell you that it is never far from trying to lift the box and reveal itself. As a profession what are we doing to try to support those colleagues who just are not winning the battle of the box?
Teaching is a stressful career. Even when it is going well, there are pressures that can test the best. For some, it only takes a small incident to knock fragile confidence for them to be on that road that can lead to a downward spiral that becomes out of control.
Clarke Carlisle, a sufferer of depression himself, agreed with other sufferers that it can be difficult to ‘show’ the world that there is a problem. For him, losing an important match was enough to get him reaching for the bottle. People saw the ‘after’ but not how vulnerable he was.
I’m sure we all know colleagues who are under pressure. We do see signs that they are not coping. Perhaps a raised voice here or a late arrival there. Perhaps just their demeanor in the staff room. What about those, like me, who are talented actors and show nothing until they break? What can we do to support them?
As is often the case in situations like this, talking about things, bringing it out in the open and smashing the box is a start. Stopping the children referring to each other as mental or bonkers. Establishing, and advertising widely, a help line much like the FA have done would also be good. We need to stop being afraid of ‘it’.
‘It’ is an illness that, just like a physical illness, needs treatment so that the person can get on with their lives. We can see a broken leg. We know that the time away from school was to mend the break. We need to be more aware of how our colleagues are coping and offer support sooner. When they return we need to remember that something that was broken has been mended. It may, however, still need some support strapping until it is fully healed.Photo from Peter Daems