When Robin Williams took his own life on August 11, people across the world were shocked at this sudden and tragic loss.
Newspapers were quick to uncover the details of his death and uncover what prompted a successful man to end his life. His publicist said he was “battling severe depression”, there was speculation that he was worried about money and his career. It was unclear if he was receiving medical treatment for his mental health problems.
Although suicide is always shocking and tragic, it is important to remember that people who take their own lives are relatively few in number. Statistics show that 4,841 suicides were recorded for people aged 15 and over in England and Wales in 2012. Of these, 62 were teachers (aged 20 to 64). And since January 2013, Teacher Support Network has received 71 calls out of more than 64,000 from people considering suicide.
Yesterday (Wednesday, September 10) was World Suicide Prevention Day. It reminded us that suicide can be preventable. There is a big jump from feeling depressed or alone to taking your own life. But what mechanisms are in place to catch people before they head down that road of despair?
Robin Williams’ death has shone a light on mental health. It has encouraged the public to share their struggles and to talk more and more about what is becoming a less and less taboo subject.
Most mental health problems are common issues. After financial worries, in the last 18 months we received the most calls to our Support Line about a combination of various mental health-related issues. We had 5,343 calls about anxiety, 1,046 about emotional health, and 819 on depression. We know that if people with common conditions like these get early intervention, most will recover quickly.
However, mental health services are failing too many. Last month, care minister Norman Lamb said children’s mental health services were “dysfunctional” and at crisis point. A week earlier, the new president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Simon Wessely, warned that two-thirds of Britons with depression get no treatment. This black-hole in services is the result of draining funds, despite pledges by health secretary Jeremy Hunt that mental health will be given “parity of esteem” with physical health.
People at the sharp end who are self-harming or pose an immediate risk to themselves or others might get access to care relatively quickly. However, those who tell their GP they are having depressive thoughts can wait from 18 weeks to two years for routine treatment or referral to a specialist.
Our services are helpful in plugging that gap in the education sector, offering access to counselling and coaching. We also provide practical online guides on leadership, managing behaviour and advice for NQTs, and this month we launched a pilot one-to-one therapy scheme in partnership with Anxiety UK for teachers suffering with anxiety at the beginning of term.
Another issue is talking about mental health at work. A recent BuzzFeed shared stories of workers who pretended they had migraines or food poisoning to get time off work, rather than “admitting” they had a mental health issue. Among the stories was a teacher who feared revealing his bipolar disorder would jeopardise his job.
Employers and health bosses need to wake up to the fact that mental health problems are a common fact of life. All of us will experience or know someone who has hit difficult times. It is important to find a mechanism, whether that’s friends or colleagues or our Support Line, to unpick and rise out of that difficulty and that’s what our charity exists to do.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).