Admitting to being depressed at work was not an easy thing for me to do. I had been an effective and inspirational classroom practitioner for fifteen years before my first episode of depression.
Looking back there had been a gradual erosion of my self-confidence as a teacher over a number of months. I had become more anxious about being in front of the class and was beginning to suffer from sleeplessness. This contributed to my sense of not being good enough, constantly having to improve and become a better person.
I remember walking into my classroom on the morning of my first breakdown, and just sitting at my desk weeping not knowing what to do and just waiting until somebody found me. It just so happened that one of the support staff walked past my classroom and saw me crying and came in. They were very supportive in getting me away from the public space, though my sobbing made them uncomfortable. I think that was the most common reaction, sympathy but a general feeling of not knowing what to do with me.
At that point I contacted the charity Teacher Support Network who provided me with someone to talk to through their free counselling service, but the real problem was how to be open about my feelings at work. Even though I did not hide what had happened to me it did make others feel uncomfortable and so was hidden away. The problem with being depressed is that no one can see it. If I'd had a visible wound people might have known how to treat me and recognise I needed help but without that obvious sign people seem return to business as usual.
Being in a state of depression means one needs support but being in that state means that support is often the most difficult thing to ask for or even know what it is you need help with. Coupled with the fact that it makes others feel uncomfortable the state of depression can be a self-perpetuating cycle of isolation and withdrawal. That certainly happened to me. Even though I returned to work and assumed my full time role with all its responsibilities, I and others assumed I was ok. Without informal and formal ways of talking about my feelings it was almost inevitable that I would follow the well worn path of overwork and anxiety that led to another episode.
Two episodes later it became clear that teaching was no longer something I could do. At that point I was surprised to discover three other teachers in my school who were also suffering but I knew nothing about. The reality is many people are suffering silently and alone. 47% of school staff polled by Teacher Support Network in October 2014 said they had suffered depression in the last two years. That's nearly half and yet I wonder how many actually felt comfortable enough to talk to their colleagues about it.
I do not know if being able to talk to others in the school would have stopped me leaving teaching, but I do know it would have meant I would have felt less isolated. For me now the important thing is for people to talk more about how they actually feel. More than that, we need to be open in our workplaces about the stresses and strains without thinking that makes us weak and less able. In fact, for me, honesty is a sign of strength and the only way to change ourselves and our workplaces to reduce the opportunity for depression to walk in.
And that is where I am at today. Now on the outside I have the time to think about the teaching world in a different way. Now in my fourth year of a part time PhD I am attempting to tell the stories of stressed, anxious and depressed teachers in a different way and carry on the conversation. If you are reading this and would like to tell me your story for this project then please let me know. And if you are out there, in distress, talk to someone.