Mental Health Recovery.
This post was created as part of Twinkl‘s worldwide teacher wellbeing campaign, TeacherTruths. Head over to their Year of Wellbeing page to read other’s views and find out how you can have your say. TeacherTruths: Supporting teacher wellbeing, one conversation at a time.
Mental Health Awareness.
Teacher mental health is, sadly, becoming a bigger issue every year. Yes, the stigma is slightly decreasing but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be.
This needs fixing now!
If we are to remove the stigma and let other teachers get help when they need it, we need to be way more open. So I thought I better lead by example and tell my story.
I’ve not hidden the fact that I was off sick for three months in 2018 but I’ve not really told my story of what happened either.
What follows is my account of the period leading up to my time off sick, my experiences from under the dark cloud of depression, how I came back from it and where I am now.
My wife and I have a busy household, two adults, two children all of the time, two children 50% of the time and a cat called Bonnie.
My wife and I had only been married about a year when we took all the children away on holiday to Portugal (paid for by our friends and family as a wedding gift). This was the first time all six of us had been away together.
As a newly blended family who were still getting used to each other, we had quite a few stressful moments. My son (the eldest of the children) has an Autism diagnosis (What used to be referred to as Asperger’s) and struggles when his routine is changed and this extra pressure added to the stress.
Unbeknown to me, my wife was having a really shitty time at work, I knew she was stressed but I didn’t know just to what extent. Shortly after returning from our holiday she opened up about it and told me she just couldn’t go on at work. She went to the doctor and was signed off sick with depression. She was off sick for about 4 months.
During the time she was off, she was pretty much out of action. Happily, I did whatever I could to support her which included doing most of the looking after the kids and the running of a house.
Can you be stressed without knowing it?
Whilst doing all this, I was also having quite a stressful time at work, I had a boss who was a bully, who really didn’t make things any easier for me. She criticized everything I did (even when she was the one who asked me to do them in the first place), undermined me and didn’t support me in things that I was struggling with.
What I didn’t realise though, I was getting incredibly stressed and anxious. I missed my wife and I wasn’t looking after myself.
In no way am I blaming my wife for anything I went through, we both have a history of depression and it was just bad luck that we both had a depressive episode that ran concurrently.
If it was just looking after my wife and the kids, I’m sure I would have been able to cope with it without much problem. It was the work stress that tipped me over.
I began to dread going to work and used to physically feel sick whenever I noticed my boss had sent me an email, I just knew what would be in there…something else I’d apparently done wrong.
I hadn’t had a depressive episode for over 10-years and for one reason or another, I missed the signs.
Emotional Symptoms of Stress.
Towards the end of 2018, my wife was feeling much better, she had quit her stressful job and had started a new job at the local hospital. She was well on the way to being free from her depression.
I had often joked with her that now she was back it was my time to have some time off.
Maybe this was my subconscious telling me what I should be doing?
It all came to a head one day in December, whilst teaching year 7 class. I found myself getting more and more irate over really innocent things. There was an 11yr old female student who had forgotten to bring a pen to school (again), something I really wouldn’t normally have a problem with but I started to feel quite angry (I hadn’t shouted at her but I could feel it coming).
At this point I realised something was wrong, this wasn’t my normal in-class persona, I’m usually a laid back, calm teacher. I asked my teaching assistant to keep an eye on them for a minute while I went to the toilet (I just wanted some time to sort myself out and calm down).
As I was walking to the toilet I realised I was having a panic attack and went to the school office to see the two lovely office ladies, As usual, they were brilliant and immediately recognised I was in a bit of a bad way. They sat me down and gave me a cookie and a cup of tea.
Within about five minutes my classes for the rest of the day were covered and I was sent home. I had the next three days off and went back to work the following Monday.
In hindsight, this was a big mistake!
For the next couple of weeks, things calmed down and I just got on with the run-up to Christmas which came and went. We all ate too much and had a great holiday period. I went back to school in January and carried on carrying on.
Signed off Work with Stress and Anxiety.
I’ve never been very good in the winter, the lack of light has always affected me more than most. Towards the end of January we had a teacher training day (we call them inset days in the UK). I find these days dreadful, they always feed my “I’m not good enough” anxiety for some reason.
The day started fine, having a cup of tea and catching up with my teacher friends.
But then the shit hit the fan!
During the first whole-school presentation by the head of the school, I started to have another panic attack.
A BIG ONE!
I had heart palpitations, I felt sick, I was sweating profusely, I couldn’t sit still, I was feeling claustrophobic and I felt the need to run out of the room and never come back.
I managed to hold on for an hour until the first tea break (I’d already made my escape plan) and as soon as other teachers started to stand up to go and get a cuppa, I grabbed my bag and pretty much ran out of the building to the car park, sat in my car and locked the doors.
As the panic attack started to subside, I realised I had no idea what to do. The guilt and embarrassment hit like a train. I sat there and cried for what seemed like an hour or two but in reality, it was probably only 30 minutes.
I felt like I was alone in the world.
I finally managed to gather my thoughts enough to text a good friend who I knew understood what I was going through. He is a psychology teacher and all-round good bloke (at the time of this happening, he was writing an article for me on teacher stress (Oh the irony!)). He immediately called me back and he told me what I already knew but had just blocked out for months.
I was sick, very sick.
I then emailed the lovely human resources manager at school and told her where I was and what had happened.
Luckily she was in her office and called me straight back asking if I was able to come into her office and chat (she also said, If I wasn’t ok, she would come out to the car park to see me). The calmness and care in her voice felt like a blanket wrapping around me, I’ll never forget that first contact, in hindsight this was the start of my recovery, it would be a long road back but I now see that it started here.
About 10 minutes later I was sat in her office with another cup of tea (I love tea, tea makes everything better!).
Apparently, I was ghostly white and looked terrible. She took all of a nanosecond to decide I was going home and that she would arrange cover for my classes and sort everything out with the school.
Sometimes it’s people like that make all the difference. I’m not sure what I would have done if my friend and the HR manager hadn’t responded to my texts and emails.
Consequences of Stress.
I started to drive home, not really knowing what to do. I was very nervous about telling my wife because I felt pretty stupid; a 44-year-old man running away from a meeting.
I felt quite ridiculous, weak and very embarrassed.
I stopped in a car park about halfway home and just stared out of the windscreen for ages, just wondering what to do. Finally, I got up enough courage to phone my wife and tell her what happened.
Obviously, she was very concerned and supportive, she told me to get home, snuggle up on the sofa in my pyjamas, have a cup of tea and put a film on until she got home from work (a job that she was really enjoying).
That afternoon, I called my doctor and made an appointment for the next morning.
Upon sitting down in the doctor’s office, I barely had to say “I’m a teacher and I’m stressed” and he had his notepad out and was my signing me off sick for two weeks.
Gonna tell you, I literally felt relief flooding through my body.
Recovery from Depression, Stress and Anxiety.
I pretty much stayed on the sofa for the next two weeks. The doctor had offered me antidepressants as he said these would really help with the anxiety and stress but I declined, I wanted to try and get back to my happy self on my own.
I was quite worried about going on back on anti-depressants. During the recovery from my last depressive episode, I had found it very difficult to come off them and I didn’t want this to happen again. I think this is why I hesitated to take up the doctors offer.
After two weeks I went back to the doctor and he signed me off for another two weeks, I clearly wasn’t any better than when I first went off sick. The previous two weeks had passed in a bit of a blur of sleep, staring at the tv and feeling lost. Again, I refused the antidepressants, thinking that given enough time I’m I could get myself better on my own.
As the second two weeks sick leave were starting to come to an end I called the doctor back as he suggested and went in to see him. He asked if I felt better and at this point, I admitted that, while the stress had reduced, (two weeks watching crap TV, sat on the sofa in your pyjamas drinking tea (obviously) will reduce your stress!) the anxiety and now depression had really kicked in.
I think it was obvious to him that I wasn’t better at all and again suggested I go onto antidepressants.
This time I decided I didn’t have anything to lose.
I left the doctor’s office, collected my prescription and went home. I decided to start taking the antidepressants straight away.
Returning to Work After Stress, Anxiety and Depression.
Over the course of the next month, the antidepressants started to have an effect and my mood started to lighten. I still wasn’t ready to go back to work but I was starting to feel a little bit like my old self.
I was signed off for another month and continued trying to do more things outside. I went swimming, I went for walks and tried to do more things around the house. I was finding myself again and I knew that when this sick period was up, I’d be going back to school.
Fortunately, my sick note ended at the beginning of the two-week Easter holiday, perfect timing if I do say so myself!
I was all set to go back and was psyching myself up to get back in the classroom when I had an unexpected bit of good news.
I was checking my work email, trying to catch up with things I’d missed when I saw an email advertising for the position of head of my department.
Was my nemesis boss leaving?
I quickly texted one of my colleague friends and asked her what was going on. I found out that while my boss wasn’t leaving she had been promoted into a different role and therefore was no longer going to be my immediate superior.
I literally jumped for joy!
Although this change wouldn’t take place until the beginning of the next academic year, at least I knew that I only had to do one more term working for her.
I finally went back to work and within a day or so I was settled back into teaching.
The head of my school and HR manager were (and still are) amazing. They put me on a well supported, staggered start in the classroom, only teaching 50% of my lessons for the first couple of weeks and then gradually building up to my full timetable.
We regularly had (and still have) welfare meetings so they could check how I was and how I was coping. I felt nothing other than supported, respected and cared for.
By the time I was up to a full timetable it was time for another half term, one week break. I was completely shattered but I really felt I was back!
This period didn’t pass trouble-free, I still had regular dreaded emails from my boss and I was now aware that she had no interest in my recovery. However, now I knew she wasn’t going to be my problem for much longer, I let it slide it off me like water off a Duck’s back.
The last half term at school passed easily as the sun was out and the sky was blue (both the meteorologically and metaphorically!).
My family and I had a great summer holiday and I really felt refreshed when I went back to school in September. The person who had been appointed as my new boss was actually a friend of mine from within the department, we’ve always got on really well. It felt like a totally different relationship.
She is everything the previous one wasn’t; kind, supportive, confident in her position and she laughs!
So far this year has been absolutely brilliant. I have really been able to focus on my organisation skills (something I had previously been notoriously bad at) which in turn has reduced my anxiety and stress even further which is brilliant. I also have two new teachers working for me and they are both fantastic.
I sit here writing this at the end of the first half-term week break of the year, a time when usually I would be panicking about going back to school. I don’t think I’ve ever been this relaxed about going back to work after a holiday and this is all testament to the support my wife, family, friends and the school have given me.
I can’t say that I’ll never fall down into that deep depression again but I’m doing everything I can to stay out of it. I’m getting more sleep and eating healthier (I’ve become vegan) and I’m exercising a lot more (running and doing lots of classes at the gym).
I recently had my 45th birthday and I can honestly say I’ve never felt stronger (both mentally and physically).
There is absolutely no shame in taking time off for mental illness. Mental illness is no joke and anyone who suffers from it knows just how lonely and isolated you can feel, usually in your own mind.
If you need time off for stress, anxiety depression or any other mental illness, my advice to you as someone who’s been through it and has come out of the other side is, get your ass to the doctor to get signed off.
You wouldn’t just struggle on if you’d broken your leg or had malaria, would you?
You can’t take care of the kids if you’re not taking care of yourself.
In the UK: The Samaritans or SANE.
In the US: NAMI, Mental Health America or Crisis Text Line
Alternatively, If you ever need to reach out to someone, feel free to get in touch on my various social media and I will be honoured to listen to you and give the kind of support that got me through.