On Monday, November 5, a school headteacher delivered an INSET day to her staff team. At the end of the day, a member of staff found her hanged in her office.
The police said the death was “unexplained but is not believed to be suspicious”, the implication being that the headteacher killed herself. In response to this tragic incident, the school was closed and an inquest planned.
We heard the news about Helen Mann on Tuesday afternoon after it was reported on the web. I picked up the free paper on my train the next day and wondered how sympathetically it would cover this dramatic story.
I had to wait and see. Another story had broken, also involving teachers and, coincidentally, INSET, and it was given a better position in the news. What was the more important story?
During a previous month, a group of teachers was seen attending the wedding of a colleague at the end of a training day. A parent had commented: “As taxpayers we pay their wages… They’re being paid to teach.”
The headteacher of that school explained that she had given her staff training time to research a forthcoming project, adding that they could do that at a time of their choosing. Some did their planning after the wedding.
The council said no action was being taken. Not an issue. So why did the newspaper even run the story? The answer is in the headline. “Today’s lesson… sneaking off to a teacher’s wedding,” it shouts, from the top of page nine.
What news was there of the headteacher death that closed a school and left a family and community grieving? Not until page 17 did it appear, after the letters to the editor and a feature on mobile phones.
So why should a headteacher death such as this one take such a lowly position in the news agenda? Why is such a story deemed less important than one depicting teachers “sneaking off” to enjoy a social life? Do newspaper editors think articles criticising teachers are that much more appealing to their readers?
Or could it be simply that those editors decide we will not want to think about suicide while we are travelling to work, sipping our cappuccinos?
Suicide is not nice to think about. That might help to explain the volume of complaints we receive when we discuss it (which we may receive for my having written this article). We know this issue is unpalatable, and, yes, we know it is rare.
We also know that some teachers have other, extreme reactions to pressure at work or at home: the number of calls and emails to our support line from teachers wishing to self-harm increased from 27 during 2010 to 51 during 2011, autumn term accounting for nearly half of them. The upward trend continued this year: during the first eight months of 2012 we took another 40.
Why can we not discuss teacher suicide? Perhaps it is a false question. Perhaps we can. And more importantly, we should.
As a specialist provider of support to those working in education, we should be talking more openly about the issues of suicide and self-harm. We also think society should be engaging with and addressing these issues. Especially so, given that people in positions of leadership are finally bringing the issue of mental health into the political foreground, as discussed recently by Ed Miliband.
We feel there is a need for more detailed help and information about common mental health problems. This is why we are currently working with a range of organisations with experience in this field and why we are inviting people who have experienced very difficult situations in the past to let us know what helped them cope.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).