This is the first of two articles in which I’m going to talk about mental health. This one is about teachers; the second is about students. Straight off the bat, I’m going to tell you that some of this article is scary, other bits are controversial and all of it is straight-up honest. If that’s going to be a problem, please stop reading now.
Originally, I was going to quote a bunch of stats about how horrible the current state of teachers mental health is, what percentage of teachers suffer from Stress, what percentage of them don’t want to tell anyone, how many are considering leaving due to mental health issues and so on.
I was even going to compare teachers with paramedics to show how similar the statistics are (because they are), but then I thought: Why? What’s the point of continuing the trend of waving wildly at statistics and shouting “Hello? Anyone else
Anyone with a brain, hands and a computer can Google this stuff anyway, so I’d just be jumping on the bandwagon and contributing to the idea that stats is the new black.
I’m sick of the damned things and in all probability, so are you. You can’t move for them in teaching. It seems to me that if you can’t come up with some handy stats at the average meeting, you’re considered to be a general failure as a human being.
In meetings towards the end of my last teaching tenure, I used to make stats up just to see what would happen. My personal favourite was: “76.2% of my students feel more than 80% confident that they will reach or exceed their target grade by the end of Term 2.” What the f*** does that even mean? Search me. I just thought it was funny.
It’s become an obsession, hasn’t it? Senior leaders in education are so averse to not having stats to hand that they seem to develop a peculiar form of stats-Rabies if they can’t quote them at will. You can see them reaching for their stats whenever the conversation drifts to real topics like oh, I don’t know, teachers mental health? See what I did there?
So: No. No stats today. There are enough stat-goblins in education anyway. We don’t need any more. What I’m going to do here instead is have a good look at teacher’s mental health, particularly Chronic Stress. I’m going to look at what that really is, where I believe it’s coming from and what we might be able to do about it.
It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that Stress is a physical response. That’s just Biology, right?
It’s also not going to come as a surprise that it’s the activation of the Stress Response, usually known as the “Fight-Or-Flight” response. What might be surprising is that there’s more than one kind of stress, so it can get a bit complicated. I’ll try to keep it simple.
HPA Axis Definition.
If the brain perceives a threat, it will kick off the Stress Response. On a biological level, that’s the HPA axis in action. The Hypothalamus (H) sends off a signal to the Pituitary gland (P), which sends off a signal to the Adrenal Cortex (A). That results in Adrenalin and Cortisol being released into the bloodstream to prepare the individual to respond to the threat. Eventually, the blood concentration of Cortisol reaches a given level, which triggers the Hypothalamus to stop sending the signal. That’s basically it.
Acute Stress Vs. Chronic Stress.
Acute Stress is the one-off sudden kind in response to a perceived threat, and the Stress Response is a really good idea there. There’s no point being chilled out about going into your bathroom and finding a mountain lion in it, is there?
You probably want to do something about that. Acute Stress = Stress Response. Once you’ve dealt with the threat, the Hypothalamus sorts itself out and it’s a case of emergency over. Great!
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a different proposition. That’s when the perceived threat is on-going, and it’s what teachers are subjected to all day, every day.
In Chronic Stress, the keywords are “perceived threat”. For as long as an individual perceives a threat in their environment, the Hypothalamus will kick off the HPA Axis and will not be able to switch it off because it keeps receiving Threat Signals. Keep that up over extended periods of time and it can get you killed. That’s not hyperbole; it’s a fact.
- It causes the creation of Glutamate, which creates “free radicals” in the brain, which kill brain cells.
- It over-clocks the Amygdala, which enlarges, which makes the individual fearful.
- It stops the
brainmaking BDNF, which is used in making brain cells, so fewer are created to replace the ones being killed.
- It reduces levels of Serotonin and Dopamine, low levels of which are associated with depression.
- It messes with the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which is used in decision making, which makes the individual indecisive.
- It messes with the Hippocampus, which is used in memory and learning, which inhibits both.
Nasty, huh? What you’re seeing in teachers who are reaching, or have reached “burn out” are the effects of Cortisol caused by Chronic Stress. Add to that the massive increase in risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke and you’ve got someone who is now giving their health and/or life for their job.
No dice, my friends. No dice. If that’s you, you have my sympathy. I’ve been there, and I can tell you that it does get better if you take appropriate action, so if you haven’t already, go to your Doctor please. Do it now.
So what’s this “perceived threat” stuff all about then?
What is it in the environment of teachers that adds up to a “perceived threat”? In a word: Workload. Teachers that are on top of their workload at any given time are so rare as to be almost mythical. Like Unicorns, or the likelihood of getting the Pope involved in a game of Twister.
The never-achievable outcome of being on top of the workload, combined with the insistence of its achievability from delusional leaders and politicians and the constant reminders of negative outcomes for not achieving it creates a toxic soup of “perceived threat” that just won’t go away.
Combine that with the life stressors of being horribly underpaid, general wear and tear of having families and lives and what you end up with are teachers that live with a perceived threat all day, every day. Chronic Stress is the inevitable outcome in that situation.
Teachers Stress Management.
So what can be done about it? Well, I believe that the first thing that needs to change is our perspective on the issue. Unbelievably in the 21st Century, there is still a stigma associated with mental health issues in both the US and the UK.
People are reticent to admit that they are struggling with Chronic Stress and even more reticent to seek help for it. Society is far too ready to see being signed off work as a weakness and a potential barrier to promotion and across both countries, people suffer in silence.
I write extensively elsewhere about abuse and abusive relationships, which is why I’m qualified to also write this article because the parallels between teachers mental health and that of a Target of abuse are both clear and undeniable.
Both suffer from the effects of Chronic Stress, and both are afraid to speak out for fear of appearing weak, not being believed and even worse, blamed. The cruel irony of being a sufferer of Chronic Stress is the very damage that has been done to the brain. Take another look at that list from earlier.
A person with a brain that has received that level of damage feels depressed, fearful, indecisive, confused and insecure which is precisely why they don’t speak out. The really annoying part of that is that they are the very people who need help the most and the very people least likely to get it until they speak out.
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Teacher Chronic Stress Example.
As a case in point, a very dear teacher friend of mine rang me recently to ask what to do when they had been hit by a wave of anxiety at the prospect of going to school that day. They rang me because they know damned well what I would tell them.
Their damaged brain was telling them what the brain of any sufferer of Chronic Stress’ brain tells them: “It’s me. I’m the problem.” My friend called me because they knew that I would say otherwise; that the problem is the job and the workload, something they already knew in their bones but their brain wasn’t listening.
I’m delighted to say that my friend is now recovering and is taking the time to be kind to themselves.
Just like every other sufferer of Chronic Stress, my friend was labouring under a framework of understanding that we have held as a society for far too long: that Chronic Stress is normal; that dealing with it is a normal part of life; that we just have to accept that “that’s the way it is”.
Wrong: Wrong all day: Wrong all week: Wrong all month and Wrong all year: Wrong in all the colours and flavours of Wrong: Wrong six ways to Sunday and Wrong right in your face.
Chronic Stress is a killer, and it’s not acceptable that people pay the cost of the demands of their jobs with their health and their lives. Given that, I’m going to reframe the whole thing and I’m going to ask you to bear with me on this one. Changing the perception of mental health issues requires are reframe, so here’s mine. See what you think.
See, I firmly believe that anyone who doesn’t actively help sufferers of Chronic Stress is one of two things: either they are complicit, and therefore part of the problem or they benefit from it in some way and therefore have no incentive to help. The latter are abusers. That’s right, I said it: People who deliberately benefit from the suffering of others are abusers.
But there is a third category: those who don’t know the sufferer is suffering and when they do know, they do something about it. I have been fortunate in my career to have had some wonderful bosses, those who recognised when I was struggling or could do better and stepped up to support me.
I’m sure many of you have too. Whether such people do it for professional reasons because they know that happy people are productive people, or for personal reasons because they actually care is immaterial. They do it, and that’s all that matters because the end result is the same: those who need support and understanding get it.
So how can teachers know which one they’re dealing with? Especially when their Chronically Stressed brain is telling them not to tell anyone? How can Chronic Stress sufferers figure out whether they’re dealing with individuals who are complicit, individuals who are abusers or individuals who will support them? How can they tell anyone what they’re going through when that’s the last thing they want to do?
Here’s the great news: They don’t have to tell anyone except their Doctor.
Doctors are awesome at dealing with sufferers of Chronic Stress. They know full well how much of a contributor Stress is to all illness and they just can’t wait to sign that piece of paper that tells your employer that you’re not coming back for a bit.
Here in the UK, I have never known a Doctor that didn’t sign a teacher off work for at least two weeks on hearing the words “I’m a teacher, and I’m stressed”, and I’ve worked with more people in that position than you can shake a stick at. Doctors reach for the pen as soon as you get to the word “teacher” in that sentence.
All the Chronic Stress sufferer has to do is e.mail H.R. they’ve been signed off by their Doctor and that’s it. And here’s why:
That message will filter down very quickly to everyone concerned, and at that point they will decide for themselves what they’re going to do about it. Those who are complicit will see it as a functional problem and file it under “deal with it”.
Those who are abusers will see it as a personal slight and file it under “attack later”. Those who want to support will see it as a person in need of help and file it under “care and support”. Yes, folks. It really is as simple as that. No, I’m not kidding. I know what I’m talking about and it really is that simple.
When the sufferer gets back to work, they’ll either be supported or they won’t. Anyone who supports them is fine with me, especially if they continue to do so. Anyone who doesn’t is either complicit or an abuser.
If we get that distinction straight, we go some way to set the issue in an appropriate context, because people who suffer from Chronic Stress are unwell.
They’re not weak, they’re not flawed, they’re not less-than; they are unwell.
Anyone who fails to support someone when they’re unwell is either complicit, or they’re an abuser. Seriously, if your romantic partner didn’t support you when you were unwell, invalidated you by ignoring the fact that you’re unwell, or actively criticised you and penalised you for it, you’d kick them to the kerb, right? How is this any different?
Thanks for bearing with me on that lot. I did promise at the start that it would be controversial and honest. Reframes are radical; that’s the point, and I believe that if we don’t start reframing this issue, we won’t change perceptions and nothing will change.
The other thing I believe we can do about the issue is to recognise it for the elephant in the room that it is. Because it’s not just an elephant; it’s an enormous elephant; it’s pink; with stripes; and a special hat.
It’s waving a giant flag with the words “I’m an Enormous Pink Stripy Elephant with a Special Hat” on it. The only people who choose not to look at that elephant are the ones who benefit from denying that it’s there. I really don’t like people like that, and it’s time we stopped letting them get away with it.
As a community, we can change things and we need to speak truth to power to do so. If you’re in a union, contact them to see what they’re doing about it and get involved, please. Write to your MP, your local council, your Senator, your Congressman. There are superb people out there doing amazing things for teachers, so please support them.
The Education Support Partnership in the UK is phenomenal:
Starling Minds is a great place to start in the US:
Just like you, I’m tired of hearing that there’s no money for investment in teachers’ mental health. That’s just a lie, plain and simple. There is money; it’s just going to the wrong places.
Teachers’ mental health is not the priority and it must be if we’re going to stop the epidemic of Chronic Stress that is damaging our teachers and their ability to help young people be the best they can be. People in power are trying to get away with paying bottom-dollar prices for top-dollar products: Teachers.
Anyone who opens that Economics-based conversation with me gets an Economics retort: Externality. If you’re not familiar, an externality is a cost (or benefit, to be fair) that affects a party that did not choose to incur it.
Car manufacturing, for example, incurs loads of externalities in terms of pollution. We buy a car, but we get the car and the pollution. Car manufacturers are urged to internalise the cost of the externality by increasing the cost of the car and paying higher taxes to cover it. Get it?
Being a teacher isn’t really different: We bought into being a teacher; we didn’t buy the Chronic Stress that comes with it and what’s more we don’t want it.
Any Economist will tell you that the answer is to internalise the externality, and that means that anyone who wants the product pays for it. Do you want teachers? Pay for the Chronic Stress that comes with the job, and don’t tell me there’s no money because there is. Stop trying to get away with offering cut-price deals for teachers and pay the proper cost of having them.
You wouldn’t turn up to a new car dealership, offer half the price of the car and expect to get away with it, would you? How is that any different? Cars cause pollution, and teaching causes Chronic Stress (at least right now it does). Deal with it, pay for it, and shut the hell up about there being no money. If you can’t afford the product, don’t go to the market. Case closed. The next time you get the “there’s no money” argument, throw that back and see what happens.
Teachers are Amazing.
I believe that teachers are amazing. They are passionate, they care, they strive to be the best they can be to allow their students the same privilege, they work their socks off and they do a job that the majority of the population, often by their own admission, simply could not do.
They are a treasure in society, and it’s high time we recognised that. As a teacher reading this, I’d like to urge you to think of one of your colleagues. Make a mental note to do or say something nice for that person tomorrow. Even better, do it right now.
When we treat each other as the top-dollar products we are, maybe those who want to pay bottom-dollar prices for us will notice. Maybe, just maybe, we will demonstrate to them that
*The “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller?” quote is a joke from the