Staff room can be a very lonely place for many of our teachers
Dr Claire Hayes looks at the deep levels of inadequacy, worthlessness and exhaustion experienced by some of our teachers.
Some people think that because teachers have short hours and long holidays, they have no reason to have depression. Those people may never have taught a class full of children. Teaching can be challenging, even for teachers who are in the best of health.
Teachers who have depression may feel deep levels of inadequacy, worthlessness, exhaustion and even hopelessness. They can be extremely self-critical and often automatically assume that others are critical of them also. They can believe that they are on their own and may withdraw from any supports that might be available to them.
Staff rooms can be lonely places. Many teachers who have depression manage successfully to do their work well, yet dread going to the staffroom. They may think that colleagues will recognise immediately that they are 'not well' and judge them harshly for it. They may avoid going in altogether; or go in and be very quiet and withdrawn, or deliberately put on a huge act of being 'in great form'. Some manage successfully to hide their depression during their working hours only to collapse in the evenings, at weekends and during holiday times. Others are not able to hide it as they may have had to take some time off to recover. Imagine the scene in the staffroom as someone who has been 'off work sick' returns. The obvious question from concerned friends and colleagues is 'are you better?' While intended to be kind, this focus can seem too much. The last thing the teacher may want is to be the centre of attention. And yet, is it OK for colleagues to ignore that someone they work with has returned from sick leave? It can be very tricky to know what to do. Parents of students can sometimes be very supportive but sadly some can cruelly assume that because a teacher has been off with depression, he or she will never be fully able to teach their child properly again. Children can pick this attitude up and in extreme cases can be instrumental in teachers ending their careers early. We know that some people who have severe depression can get to a point where they think that there is no point in continuing and feel hopeless. Just think of the impact that the death of a teacher by suicide can have on their students and their colleagues, not to mention the huge distress to their own family and friends.
Aware is very clear about the importance of separating out thoughts such as 'I wish I wasn't here', 'I have had enough' and 'people would be better off without me' from the act of suicide. It can be very common for any of us on a 'bad day' to wonder what the point of continuing to live is anyway. Labelling people as 'suicidal' just because they have those thoughts is not accurate. It is essential to remember that: Just because people think that they are 'better off dead', does not mean that they are suicidal;
Just because people may think that they are suicidal, does not mean that they have to take their own life. There are always other options; Just because someone has a diagnosis of depression, DOES NOT mean that suicide is the inevitable outcome.
The founder of Aware, Dr Patrick Mc Keon, devised the acronym Festival as a checklist for the symptoms of depression. It is useful for teachers to keep an eye on their mental health by using this checklist regularly. It is important that if you notice that you have five or more of these symptoms and these last for most of the day, every day for a period of two weeks or more, that you visit your GP or mental health professional who will determine if depression may be a factor and advise appropriate treatment, if required. The symptoms are:
- Feeling depressed, sad, anxious or bored
- Energy tired, fatigued, everything an effort, slowed movements
- Sleep waking during the night or too early in the morning, oversleeping or trouble getting to sleep
- Thinking slow thinking, poor concentration, forgetful or indecisive
- Interest loss of interest in food, work, sex, and life seems dull
- Value reduced sense of self-worth, low self-esteem or guilt
- Aches headaches, chest or other pains without a physical basis
- Live not wanting to live, suicidal thoughts or thinking of death
Here are four tips to help you if you are a teacher who has symptoms of depression:
Get and take support
It may seem easier to pretend that everything is going fine but over time the effects of untreated depression tend to become too difficult to hide. Depression is treatable and there is support available. Visiting your GP is an important first step. Looking at the services Aware provides can be a very useful second step. As well as providing information on depression, Aware has a number of services that have been proven to be effective in helping people cope with depression. These include its Life Skills programmes based on cognitive behavioural principles that are delivered online or at locations nationwide (next programmes start in November, apply online now). It also offers Support Groups throughout Ireland, a Support Line and Support Mail service and a database of lectures given on depression over the past three years. Details of these are available on www.aware.ie If you are a secondary school teacher, find out if the Aware schools programme 'Beat the Blues' is scheduled to take place in your school and see if you can arrange to sit in and benefit from it too.
It is important also to encourage teachers to seek out and take support within their own school. Principals and members of Boards of Management may have had direct or indirect experience of depression themselves and can be extremely supportive.
Confide in at least one trusted colleague
As the rate of depression increases, so too, thankfully does the number of people who understand it. Confiding in a trusted colleague that you struggle at times to cope with depression, can be enormously helpful. He or she may be able to support you in practical ways such as focusing on what you are doing well as opposed to how you are feeling. If you have taken some sick leave, this trusted person could find out before you return to school what you would like the rest of the staff to know and how you would like them to respond to you.
Learn to treat yourself with compassion and kindness
As noted above, teachers who have depression can be very self-critical. If you recognise that you have a tendency to automatically blame yourself for not being 'good enough', if you rate everyone else as better than you and at times even hate yourself, please stop right now! Think of a student to whom you have shown compassion and kindness and practice doing the same for yourself.
Gently introduce changes for a healthier lifestyle
You will know best what these changes could be. Some suggestions include a healthy diet, reducing caffeine, sugar and alcohol, eliminating nicotine, getting more exercise and sleeping better. We often underestimate how a poor night's sleep can affect our mood. Find out what helps you best to 'work, rest and play'.
We can all react differently to a diagnosis of depression. Some see it as confirmation of failure and as something to hide.
Others see it as a condition that ranges from mild to moderate to severe, can definitely be treated and is important to catch early. Teachers who cope with depression are often exceptional teachers. They understand what it is like to struggle and can be particularly attuned to the needs of their students. They have a lot to teach people who do not have depression about strength and resilience.
Dr Claire Hayes is Clinical Director of Aware and has 20 years' experience as a clinical psychologist and educational psychologist.
Aware's secondary schools programme, Beat the Blues, is available free of charge to senior-cycle classes nationwide. For more info see aware.ie. Aware also offers a range of support services for individuals experiencing depression or related conditions: Support Line: 1890 303 302; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Health & Living