The cost of caring: supporting the mental health of staff


n our second feature this month looking at mental health and wellbeing in schools, we

hear from long time Education Today contributor Dr Asha Patel, CEO of education not-for-profit Innovating Minds, who examines the issues around supporting the mental health of staff in school. 'When I signed up to be a teacher, I wish they

had told me that I would also be a nurse, a doctor and a social worker. We are all of those things,' says Michelle Stephenson, former deputy head at Young People's Academy, who has extensive experience of working with vulnerable and troubled young people. 'It is our responsibility to spot signs of abuse, to

talk to children about emotional issues, to deal with bereavement and trauma, to help them get appropriate help when they take drugs, can't manage a day in school or a day without alcohol or are fighting the urge to cut or burn themselves. Nobody talked about that in our PGCE.' Schools are not just about curriculum and

examinations. Educational staff at all levels from teaching assistant and lunchtime supervisors to teachers, senior managers and headteachers often come face to face with the problems that society prefers to forget.

What's not in the news Last month the emphasis was on the stress of exam results and the impact on staff and students of changes of policy by the government and Ofqual. The month before it was Marcus Rashford and his drive to get free school meals vouchers extended to the summer holidays. Less has been said about the sterling efforts of

school workers to support their community. Many collected and distributed computers to families who did not have technology for remote learning and kept in contact with phone calls and visits where necessary. Others dealt with basic household needs by making up food parcels, chasing up free school meal vouchers and in some cases paying for gas and electricity out of their own pocket. These moments take their toll on the energy and resilience of front line workers.

Teachers are under increasing pressure In recent years there has been a substantial increase in mental health difficulties in schools

and a stress epidemic across the entire UK education workforce. The National Education Union points out that, 'No amount of tinkering with toolkits can solve a problem with roots in an education system with unhealthy levels of accountability, high-stakes testing and stress, without addressing the more fundamental causes of high workload.' Data from their previous reports includes

comments from teachers: 'I spend every evening and weekend working. If I don't, I feel guilty for not working and I am made to feel guilty as well. I am now planning to leave the profession - the workload is making me ill and I want my life back.' 'It's unmanageable and I need a new career.

I'm unhappy most of the time and am unwell with stress and anxiety. It affects my family time considerably - I often miss time with my children and when I do spend time with them it's not quality as I'm either too tired or am worrying about what I have to do.'

Vicarious trauma Every day, teachers, senior managers and support staff come face to face with the impact of poverty, family breakdown, long-term illness and trauma. They may be involved in serious safeguarding issues and afterwards find they are unable to forget what they have seen and heard. 'Some days we just sit and cry over what these

children have been through,' said Hollie O’Sullivan, head of English as an Additional Language at Great Barr Academy in Birmingham. One of the largest schools in Europe, a number

of their students were unaccompanied minors from dangerous spots across the globe. Staff have heard first hand accounts of atrocities and feel they cannot share these with family or friends. Hollie is aware of the pressure on staff who are not equipped to deal with the severe mental health needs of some children and the personal impact this can have on her team. Clinical professionals such as psychologists

understand that vicarious trauma is an inevitable consequence of working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events. They have access to regular support in the form of clinical supervision. Schools are beginning to realise that front line staff need support and training. To


have the capacity and capability to support their students they too need to be in a mentally healthy place.

Impact on well-being It is important that experiencing vicarious trauma is not perceived as a personal weakness, shortcoming, or illness. Year on year The Teacher Wellbeing Index reports on teachers' mental health and the support available. The 2019 Index, compiled by Education Support Partnership, shows that when faced with a mental health issue:

• 34% teachers and 33% of senior leaders would turn first to somebody outside of work

• 39% felt it would negatively affect people’s perception of that person This was a small increase on the 2018 data (37%)

• 39% felt it would negatively affect people’s perception of that person. This was a small increase on the 2018 data (37%)

Often it is only when teachers hand in their

resignation, or are on long term sick leave that their colleagues and managers realise the pressure they have been under.

What can schools do to support staff? It is important to educate all school staff (including maintenance and administration teams) on the cost of caring and the impact it can have on them and on colleagues. We have found by giving staff the language and knowledge they need, they are able to express how they are feeling and make sense of their experiences. This has increased their willingness to seek help and advice, reduced emotional distress and prevented educational staff from taking time away from the school. The government’s response to the consultation

on ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper’ (2019) identified the role of designated senior leads for mental health to deliver whole school approaches. Time and time again we are hearing that mental health leads are experiencing mental health challenges themselves because they are

September 2020

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