Yesterday I read a Guardian article stating that the number of referrals to mental health crisis teams in the NHS has gone up by 60% in the UK. It didn’t seem to specify the time period in which this increase has taken place, but nevertheless it’s clear that mental health problems are something that a lot of people face to varying degrees of severity. Another recent article argues that in adopting the new GCSE result grade scales, schools are putting elite performance ahead of pupils’ wellbeing while yet another discusses the increase in mental health issues in students at university, with the number of drop-outs being three times higher in 2014-2015 than it was in 2009-2010. The context of education can be, by its very nature, a very pressurised situation where the stakes are high and failure unthinkable, even for children as young as six years old. Meanwhile, the Independent reports that at least one tenth of the 4908 teachers questioned rely on anti-depressants to combat work-related stress. An interesting initiative responds to the issue of pupil mental health at schools by proposing to give teachers the training they need to be specialists in mental health. I would argue that everybody involved in the education system – students, staff, managerial staff – would benefit from greater awareness of (potential) mental health issues, how to recognise them and how to address them.
Within education, mental health can be considered from three main angles: pupils/students mental health and mental health awareness, teachers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, colleagues’ and their students’) and managers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, their colleagues’, that of their staff team, and that of the students in their school). That’s a lot of mental health awareness needed, and alongside it, systems both for dealing with the problems that arise and, importantly, addressing the causes in order to bring down the number of these. I think this applies as fully to ELT as it does to ‘regular’ teaching, whether teachers are based in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors or whether they are based in private language schools. All contexts are high stakes in various ways, demanding in various ways and potentially conducive to mental health issues in the staff and students within them. Universities often have support services within which students and staff can seek help if they are struggling but this relies on people a) being aware that they are struggling more than is ‘normal’/need help b) knowing how to access that help and c) not being ashamed to access it.
Looking back on my own experiences of poor mental health, the requirements stated above are not necessarily easy to meet. If you are struggling, you are generally too focused on trying to keep your head above water, in one or multiple contexts, to see the bigger picture. Things accumulate, build up, things that each individually by themselves may be minor but in combination become more difficult to overcome. For example, at one school I was working at, I was told that I had had some complaints from students in one of my classes. It eventually transpired that there was a mismatch between their current syllabus and their expectations based on the syllabus of the previous level they had studied. However, between the issue arising and being resolved, my confidence took a massive hit. This spilled over into my personal life, as I lost confidence in my linguistic abilities too, meaning that when my gas bottle ran out, and I had to phone the service for obtaining a replacement, instead of it being a little thing and easy to do, it was a difficult thing and I couldn’t face it. So I didn’t. Which meant that I then wasn’t eating particularly well as I couldn’t cook. I was also having issues with my social life that were making me very unhappy, details unnecessary. I reached a point where I would sit in my flat in the morning feeling physically sick at the thought of going into work (and this ‘work-dread’ anxiety took a while to ease/wear off even after I changed jobs due to my contract reaching its natural end.) While all of this was going on, there was a workshop that required me to use the language I had lost confidence in, and as a result of all the issues described (which I just had to resist the temptation to qualify with “silly”!) I didn’t participate properly. This led to me being hauled into the DoS’s office for an explanation. I was asked if everything was ok, but my automatic reaction was to say yes. (I don’t know about anyone else, but that tends to be my knee-jerk response, almost a defensive one, but also what was wrong was all ‘little things’ that I was ‘dealing with’, it didn’t occur to me to talk about them when asked what was wrong.) So then I was told off, which shocked me into ending up in floods of tears explaining what was wrong and did then get the help I needed to sort out the gas etc. I think this is one example where better mental health awareness, both on my part and on my manager’s part, could have made a big difference.
Mental health, like physical health, is always in flux, is affected by what we do, what we consume, what situations we find ourselves in and other such factors. Like physical health, we need to be aware of how to manage our own mental health to avoid becoming ill and of symptoms that our health is off. Like physical health, sometimes ill health is minor and can be adjusted/improved fairly easily and other times it is a longer and more difficult process to heal. Like physical health, sometimes we need help to treat the symptoms and identify the cause. For that to happen, we need to be able to recognise and acknowledge when things are not ok with us, and we need to be able to help others to recognise and acknowledge when things may not be ok with them. Mental Health First Aid is one interesting approach to enabling this.
I don’t have the answers to it all, but it’s certainly something that I feel is important and want to explore further. To finish off this post, I leave you with Sandy Millin’s very useful post that brings together a lot of links relating to mental health and recommend that you have a look through. I also invite you to share any thoughts you have on the subject as I would be very interested to hear them. 🙂
Thank you so much for your candid and honest piece, LIzzie. As you know, I have suffered from poor mental health in the workplace. It has affected me on and off over the last 10 years, although I can trace it back a long way. I think some of us are prone to symptoms based on our character traits. I am still learning to accurately spot what the triggers are, how to avoid these (although ‘avoidance’ itself is not recommended, ‘exposure’ is better) and how to manage or negate the negative effects. One such factor, for me, is decided not to teach abroad anymore. Well, not outside of Europe, anyway. Cultural and linguistic differences are not easy to cope with.
In 2013, I was suffering from serious anxiety. It was a terrible year, including a one week stay in a secure unit in King’s Lynn. 3 teaching jobs, including my first presessional, which I started and failed to complete successfully. It wasn’t a lack of support. There was plenty of it, I was just mentally unwell, especially in Leicester and in Dalian, China – where I foolishly went in October that year.
In 2014, I was interviewed and offered employment at the University of Sheffield. As you know, I was all set to go and then pulled out at the last minute. In fact, our last private message on Facebook, was about exactly this. I became anxious and felt I was not ready for the intensity of the full-on EAP presessional there. Inferiority complex. It is one of my biggest regrets. I said to you at the time that it was “difficult to explain my reasons succinctly … I got serious cold feet” – I talked about the expectations to perform at a high level and that I was daunted. I didn’t mention the phrase ‘mental health’ but it was a lack of confidence in my ability to do the job well. Perfectionism has always been one of my Achilles’ heels. I have had to learn not to be like that.
For a while I only taught voluntarily, with minimal pressure. I also took work which was purely online, with no teaching involved. Only last year, however, I lost an online teaching job because I was having panic attacks at home. I realised it can happen anywhere, for seemingly no good reason. It takes a while to build up confidence once more.
Roll on to 2017. It took me 3 years to have the confidence again to apply for another presessional course. This time at INTO – UEA, Norwich. I am just coming to the end of this 12 week course and I have to say that I have successfully done what has been required. I have had a mantra of ‘good enough is good enough’ all summer. I haven’t tried to excel, but have gone the extra mile when it was within my capacity to do so. But I’ve talked to myself (not in a ‘mad’, ‘he needs to be locked up’ way) and ‘used’ different people at different times. I have also been candid with one or two people about my past and in sharing my experiences have felt that the burden was halved. Mindfulness has helped, too. Just today, I was asked how the [assessments] went yesterday – and I muttered ‘fine, no problems’. I have wanted to give a good impression all summer, but sometimes that inner voice tells us to lie a little because we want to maintain that image of ourselves, even we are secretly feeling anxious about something. People that know me well and have met me this summer told me how well I was looking. Appearances can be deceptive, of course. But I have genuinely felt good. It was great to be working in basically my home city at an institution and location that I already love. My enthusiasm has got me through, amongst other things.
Finally, I would like to state that I have just submitted a speaker proposal to IATEFL, for the first time, on this very topic. There is plenty talked about in mainstream education (as you mention above). For example, Chris Eyre’s ‘The Elephant In The Staffroom’ (Routledge, 2017). Not enough in ELT, although wellbeing comes up, including Sarah Mercer’s plenary in Glasgow this year. It won’t be enough to just talk about my experiences – that would be too self-indulgent. So I will also look at recent research as well as carry out my own survey, before offering some suggestions about improving awareness of and dealing with mental health in ELT. I would be grateful if you could share the survey request when I have published it. I have got 6 months to get a 30 minute talk together!
Thanks again, Lizzie, for joining in with the awareness raising. I hope you can publish this comment as it is better to get it out in public than keep it locked away in secrecy.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Phil. I think it’s so important for people to speak up about it rather than suffer in silence so to speak. Congrats on making it through, or better than just ‘making it through’ a long pre-sessional – I was following your posts on Facebook through the summer and was happy to see how well you seemed to be getting on especially because I’m aware of some of the setbacks you’ve experienced and talked about in this comment. I think your talk will be very interesting and hopefully the start of more discussion about this topic in the world of ELT (especially because the very nature of our profession, which either involves teachers going off into different places/cultures or students leaving theirs to study in an English-speaking one, is that there is a lot of pressure on peoples’ mental health, and that’s before you factor in predisposition, illness or any other issues that may arise in any of the other spheres that make up a person’s life other than the professional. I’ll definitely share the survey request and I hope you get lots of responses. Fingers crossed, too, that your proposal gets accepted. 🙂 Lizzie.
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