Supporting teachers to overcome anxiety

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Schools are expected to help pupils overcome mental health issues, but what support is there for our teachers, asks Julian Stanley

The mental health and emotional wellbeing of young people deserves proper attention, and when we hear tragic stories of teenagers taking their own lives after battling depression, we know that we all need to work together to support vulnerable young people.

It is often teachers at the chalkface or wider school staff who are charged with much of this responsibility. A recent poll by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference found that half of private schools hired counsellors or psychologists to help their students with mental health issues, as they feel weighed down by pressures of exams, going to a good university and being under constant surveillance on social media.

But what support is there for teachers who are often suffering from similar issues, often as a direct result of pressures at work? After all, how can teachers be expected to support children with these kinds of emotional and mental problems if they themselves are suffering similar issues?

We launched a pilot in the winter to offer one-to-one therapy with Anxiety UK to help teachers overcome anxiety. We decided to trial this personalised scheme, which complements our telephone helpline support, after market research we conducted found that 60 per cent of teachers wanted specialist support to cope with the emotional stress resulting from work-related pressures.

More than one in 10 people are likely to have a disabling anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, according to Anxiety UK. Our 2014 Health Survey revealed how 72 per cent of the education workforce suffered from anxiety and our helplines received more than 4,000 calls in the last two years relating to the issue – this was the second highest single issue after financial assistance.

A teacher from Essex came to us after a combination of work and home worries was making her feel anxious every day: “The problem at school is the workload and high expectations,” she told us. “I got to the stage where I was having panic attacks in the mornings before the children came in, just anticipating the long day ahead. I was getting quite desperate.

“My school is very good, they say don’t work too hard, but the thing is there is an awful lot to get done and I want to do my work well for the children. Unlike some of my colleagues, I haven’t got anyone at home to unload these problems to or talk through things with because my home life is quite difficult at the moment.”

This woman took part in two rounds of therapy in December last year, including a total of 12 one-to-one sessions with one of our qualified counsellors. We were able to help her develop techniques to tackle stressful things at work to stop her anxiety building up.

“It was useful talking it all through with the counsellor,” she said. “Although I can talk to people at work, I didn’t want to keep saying I’m finding things hard. 

“The counsellor was reassuring and supportive. I feel a lot better after the sessions and more assertive now. I’m now taking more time for myself without feeling quite so guilty for doing so.”

It is disturbing that so many teachers feel so overwhelmed by anxiety that they turn to us for help. Many tell us that excessive workloads and growing demands are leaving them feeling stressed and burned out, which can lead to feelings of anxiety as the work mounts up and up. 

We don’t want teachers feeling unable or unhappy to go into work in fear of what the day may bring. That’s why it is so very important that teachers dealing with common mental health problems, such as anxiety, feel safe and empowered to turn to someone for help.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).


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