Now this question could apply to bloggers as well as teachers. I constantly see posts about the question of ‘over-sharing’ on blogs. However I’m not writing about that on this occasion.
Instead this post is about teaching. It’s about how much of yourself a teacher should ‘give’ to his or her class. It’s specifically about the question of how open teachers should be with their students about their own mental health.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as more and more people ask me about mindfulness and my commitment to it.
I say ‘people come to mindfulness for different reasons’. I am vague about my own experiences. I explain that some of the people I teach mindfulness to are curious about it. Others know it may help them with their focus and concentration. Others know it could be just what they’re looking for in terms of helping their performance on the sports field, in the exam hall, in the workplace or in the dance show or drama production.
And then there are the ones who come to it because they know it is recommended for people who have a tendency to suffer from anxiety and/or low mood. I often feel a special affinity with these individuals – especially young people. I see my teenage self in them. I want to help them build their resilience and robustness; to possibly prevent them needing to seek professional help later in their lives.
Yet I am beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable about ‘dodging’ this question. We talk about ending the stigma surrounding mental health in schools and I am very supportive of the #timetotalk campaign having written a post for them in the past. Yet, as teachers, we rarely bring our own personal experiences to the conversation. Is this right?
You see I’ve always been someone who fully believes we should ‘model’ behaviour if we want to see it from the younger generation. Politeness, calmness, gratitude, a growth mindset. I try to demonstrate all of these in my classroom. Don’t get me wrong I don’t always succeed, but I try my hardest to act and behave the way I want the students to.
So does it follow that if I want to see greater openness about mental health issues from my students then I should be more open too?
When I have mentioned this to other teachers, the answer has been a resounding ‘no’. They conclude that yes, we should talk about mental health in general terms. But just as we don’t share too many details about our personal lives with our students, then the argument goes that we shouldn’t share too much about our mental health either. In fact many teachers won’t even share details about their mental health with their school leadership team, let alone the students. The saddening statistics from an ATL survey three years ago were that:
- Nearly seven in 10 (68%) of school and college staff choose to hide mental health issues from employers
- Almost half (45%) didn’t disclose hidden health issues because of worry about managers’ reactions
And I don’t believe much has changed. According to the anecdotal evidence from this Guardian article, and the statistics above, teachers aren’t going to be making a video like the incredibly inspiring ‘This is Me’ from the Bank of England anytime soon.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that teachers shout their life stories from the rooftops. I certainly wouldn’t want a colleague putting themselves in a situation where they may feel vulnerable.
However, if someone is feeling robust enough to share how they have previously overcome mental health issues then is this not inspiring to students?
Or is this overstepping the professional boundary?
I am still unsure. Having searched for advice, there seems to be very little.
So for now I will be normalising struggles with mental illness another way. I will be sharing stories like the ones below. Stories of famous people who have been open about their mental health problems and weren’t held back in their careers and lives.
- Adele who spoke candidly to Vanity Fair in October 2016 about her postnatal depression.
- US President Abraham Lincoln who’s ‘melancholy’, according to this article was public knowledge in the 1860s. The biographer states that “
Lincoln’s depression may have helped him politically more than it hurt him. It gained him sympathy and drew people toward him.”
- Kristen Bell who discussed her depression and anxiety frankly for the first time last year (see here).
- J K Rowling who has spoken regularly about her bouts of depression since 2008.
- Freddie Flintoff who revealed he suffers from depression on an Australian reality TV show in 2015. As reported here, he said: “It’s hard to explain, you have the weight of the world on your shoulders – fear, guilt, all sorts – for no apparent reason.”
- Alastair Campbell who, as described here has always been open about his mental illness.
If you are a teacher I’d be really interested to know your thoughts. How should people in education be trying to tackle the stigma of mental health?
Or, are you are a parent of a child at secondary school? How would you like the topic of mental health to be approached?
Thank you for reading.