The Depression Trap and Nature’s Failsafe

Andy Sammons leads English in a large secondary comprehensive. He has had numerous roles in schools over the last decade, including Key Stage Coordinator, Teaching and Learning lead and Departmental Lead. He lives with his wife Flippy, his son Wilf and his two lovely cats Ollie and Harry. He tweets @compassionteach

In education, it feels as if a shift is beginning to take place. Whether it’s from above – and by that I mean the new Ofsted framework – or below – and by that I mean teachers beginning to take more ownership of their wellbeing- remains to be seen. 

Statistics don’t lie: increasing numbers are leaving the profession, record numbers are now reporting poor Mental Health as a result of their work, and it’s not down to poor pay and student behaviour. Overwhelmingly, research tells us that teachers are most concerned about the behaviours of management, as well as their workload (the connection is obvious). There is – without question – an increasing sense that schools are increasingly unhappy, and it’s time we worked out the drivers and causes of this.

My own appalling experiences in 2018 led me to begin to reflect on my own Mental Health, but also the wider system too. Work related stress led me into a depression that made life a living hell for around four months- and I’m probably still working through it. An email would lead me to burst into tears. My little boy crying in the night would cause my heart to pulsate. I was utterly broken. The strain it put on my family – especially my wife and parents – is something I have to carry now.

A talking therapy that helped me begin to see which pieces could be picked up – a therapy rooted in self-compassion – gave me an insight not only into my own problems, but the wider educational system as well. Our brains have three systems: a threat detection system (thanks to our reptilian ancestors), a drive system (thanks to our mammalian cousins) and a soothe system rooted in attachment and closeness (that’s our distinctly human bit). Our threat system is great for warning our bodies to run away from a tiger, but in the modern day, not so great at helping us solve the complex issues we need to navigate day to day. When these three systems are not working in balance, it can have serious and long-term effects on our Mental Health. Eventually, our brain effectively shuts down: believe it or not there is an evolutionary basis for depression!

Marrying together the facts of our educational landscape and the most recent research on mental health, a worrying picture begins to emerge. If we perceive a lack of connection to those around us, a lack of meaningful work and a lack of autonomy over our lives, we’re in trouble. It made me wonder: does the model of the three systems stop at the individual level, or does it work at the level of larger systems such as education? In essence, has our system become so riddled with threat and drive that collectively it’s experiencing a crisis- a crisis manifesting in the haemorrhaging numbers leaving, explosion of burnout and stress, and the current recruitment crisis.

There is also one more (crucial) thing to consider: the failsafe built into our brains. There’s a reason why our species rose to the top of the food chain- our ability to communicate and cooperate, and I think there’s something to that. It turns out that practising compassion and empathy can have very real long term and meaningful benefits to our Mental Health. Again, I began to reflect on how this might manifest in the educational context.

I didn’t want to leave it there, so I pitched an idea of a book to John Catt Publishers: much to my delight, they agreed. After tonnes of research, interviews and reflection, The Compassionate Teacher is nearly ready to be published. The initial pitch is something I held in my mind when writing: it’s an exploration of our modern education system and it’s unfortunate propensity to cause poor Mental Health, and an explanation of a way forward- both in terms of relationships with ourselves, our colleagues and our students. It also offers some ideas about how we can embed more compassion into our pedagogy as well.

I believe it’s time for teachers to reclaim their Mental Health, and begin to take responsibility for looking after themselves. Only then can a meaningful shift take place towards a sustainable future for all of us.

The Compassionate Teacher is published by John Catt, and is available from 1st March. You can preorder it here.

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