Anxiety in the education system: Are schools becoming a breeding ground for mental health issues?
Teachers struggling with anxiety over workloads
As the end of the Easter holidays approaches, teachers and young people all over the country are preparing themselves for the final push of the school year, and having spent the last 2 weeks trying to forget about the rollercoaster of deadlines, marking, homework, exams, planning, achieving, failing etc, this can be a challenging time as the reminder of what is yet to come creeps ever closer.
As someone who survived 10 years in the education system (and only just), I am reminded of how turbulent my thoughts and emotions were as the holidays drew to a close. The anxiety which had followed me around until the final few days of the holiday, trying to avoid the thoughts of all the marking and planning that was still yet to be done and that I hadn’t found the mental or physical energy to tackle yet, knowing that things were only about to get worse with the final demands of exam season approaching, data deadlines and parental meetings yet to come; the merry-go-round of emotions… adrenaline, cortisol, 12 hour plus days, sleepless nights… exhaustion!
It’s no wonder there is an epidemic of teachers leaving the profession, with recruitment and retention at an all-time low. But is there a bigger concern to be aware of here? As timetables increase each year and teachers struggle to cope, more and more teaching staff are walking out mid-term or taking prolonged sick leave, forcing schools to rely on supply or non-specialist teachers and placing further burden on teacher workload as they soak up timetables and work round the clock to drag students through exams – it’s a vicious circle as schools try to fill the gaps in timetabling by reallocating responsibilities to other staff, rather than re-hire new teachers part way into the school year. But how is this emotional rollercoaster affecting the lives of our teachers, and what impact is their stress having on our young people?
Studies show sharp increase in mental health issues among young people
A study into mental health problems by the Nuffield Trust showed a six-fold increase in mental health disorders among young people across the UK, with a sharp rise between 2011 and 2014. Another study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 10% of children aged 5-16 have a diagnosable mental health disorder. This begs the questions: what is causing this steep incline of mental health concerns, and are we part of the solution or the problem? During my years in the education system I became increasingly aware of the rise in presenting issues of depression and anxiety among students each year, with more and more young people needing support and being prescribed medication for their disorders. Of course, there are many factors that can affect people’s health, and where a school is based can also impact the number of children who are at risk of potential mental health related issues, but with the numbers of diagnoses steadily increasing across the country, we need to take a wider view of what is causing this, and what we are doing about it.
Ongoing funding cuts force schools to become financially focussed
School funding has, like all other public services over the past decade, been subjected to further cuts year on year, and of course we would expect this to have an impact on staffing numbers, money for trips and equipment, pay rises and so on and so forth. But every year schools are facing difficult decisions over where to make further savings, and of course teaching and support staff have no immunity. But what is the real cost of these cuts? They may be saving money, but at what price to people’s minds and lives?
And it’s not just the students who are suffering, in fact it is my firm belief that the rise in mental health issues in young people is partly (and maybe a large part) due to a trickle-down effect from the growing stress on teacher’s workloads causing a major increase in anxiety and depression related illnesses, hindering them from being able to act as the positive role models and pastoral figures required to make a positive impact on children’s social and emotional development and wellbeing – which is surely the real reason why most teachers join the profession in the first place? The pressure on teachers to plug the holes created by staffing cuts and the growing emphasis on target based outcomes is having a landslide effect on the mental health of those in the profession. With the NASUWT teachers union’s annual survey of 5000 teachers discovering that 64% of teacher’s stated that their work had adversely affected their mental health in 2018, and 76% saying they have experienced work related anxiety, this is a real concern. A further 12% disclosed that they were taking antidepressant medication as a result of work based stress.
And even more worryingly, 3% of teachers said they have self harmed as a result of work pressures, up from 2% in the 2017 survey, where one in 5 teachers said that they were drinking more as they struggle to cope. Teachers also reported that workload stress was affecting the quality of their work and home lives, with 53% stating that they were too worn down to apply themselves to their jobs fully, and 81% (which is a staggering figure) said they are too tired to do the things they enjoy outside work.
Stress in the workplace is contagious
There is little doubt there that something is drastically wrong when we see these statistics. How can we expect our teachers to support and nurture our young people when they are at breaking point and struggling to support their own needs in healthy ways themselves? And how can we not expect these levels of stress to affect our children?? Modern research in neuroscience shows that our mirror neurons fire to mimic the state of those around us, causing us to adopt the behavioural, language and mood patterns of others, in an instinctive bid to fit in to our social settings.
If we are constantly surrounded by people who are stressed, anxious or depressed, it is scientifically proven that we can pick up this stress or become depressed ourselves. And let’s face it, school is no walk in the park for young people as it is, with pressures building on accessing higher grades to compete with an ever increasing population, prices of education at its highest, challenging home and social lives and an unstable economy to look forward to… our children have a lot on their plate too!
But who can they turn to if teachers themselves are under so much pressure that they have to decide whether to use the toilet or get a drink (and this is not an exaggeration of the truth!), between lessons/duties/detentions/catch up sessions, phone calls, meetings… etc etc etc.
We need to raise awareness and create healthier approaches to work stress in schools
For me it seems obvious that something desperately needs to change in this system, as school’s are becoming a place of great suffering as they focus on maximising financial returns rather than creating a place to develop healthy mind-sets and improve the lives of our communities. While there are many success stories and triumphs within these establishments, these are all despite these major obstacles, where only the most hardened teachers can survive long enough to make a real difference.
But this change will take radical thinking and a willingness to embrace new ideologies, which I don’t see as a priority for the key players in what seems to have become a business-minded industry. For now, I feel the best we can do is to raise awareness to the challenges our teachers and young people are facing. School leaders and Heads must support teachers in their bids for fair working conditions and hours, and get savvy on how to manage stress within the workplace, integrating healthcare programmes, in school counsellors, and integrating mindfulness approaches if our learning environments are to be able to function as such. As Maya Angelou said:
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, compassion and humour”.
Let’s make our schools a place where our teachers and children can thrive rather than merely survive!!
Get help if you are suffering from stress
Stress is one of the biggest contributors to mental and physical health issues known today. If you or anyone you know are struggling with the effects of any form of stress, please feel free to contact me to discuss how cognitive hypnotherapy or mindfulness coaching can help you in overcoming this, and help you find healthy ways to create balance in your life.
If you are a teacher or school leader and are interested in bringing mindfulness to your school, please get in touch if you’d like to discuss how I can develop a workshop or programme suitable for your staff and/or students.
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