Seeking wellbeing support: Let’s end the stigma...

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
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More teachers are reaching out for wellbeing support, but only once they have already reached crisis point. Julian Stanley says headteachers have a key role in ending the stigma over asking for help

The Education Support Partnership’s confidential helpline has been extremely busy this last year. We’ve seen the overall number of teachers calling our counsellors – who provide emotional support to education staff – rise by 35 per cent in the past 12 months to March 2018.

The highest increase has been in calls from primary school teachers – up by 54 per cent – with the majority calling at a point of crisis.

This may sound like a worrying increase, however we regard an increase in calls to our helpline as a success – it means more teachers and education staff know about us, the work we do and the help we can offer. I want to see even more teachers calling us – and that’s where headteachers come in.

For far too long as a society, asking for help with mental health problems has carried a stigma. If this were a physical problem, it would be a lot easier to encourage people to seek help as soon as they feel signs of distress. Healthcare charities dealing with conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer and stroke have been incredibly successful encouraging people to seek early diagnosis as soon as symptoms strike.

Yet mental health needs are the same – the earlier someone seeks help the better. Sadly the signs can be tough to spot or may be mistaken for physical conditions – a persistent cold that just won’t go for example, constant digestive problems, heartburn or chronic insomnia may be early signs of a mental health problem.

Leaders are also in a good position to spot changes in behaviour among staff. For example, if someone suddenly becomes irritable or you hear reports from their colleagues about other behavioural changes.

Perhaps you pick up on the grapevine about a family loss, illness, relationship problems or issues over child or elder care. This may be a good time for a gentle word – can we do anything to help? Do you need extra support? We all have our bad days, but if someone appears to be having a lot of them, this could be a red flag that they are in real distress.

Heads can play a vital role spotting problems early on before they become serious. Perhaps if you are feeling particularly brave you can share your own problems and struggles with stress? Lead by example. Maybe say something such as: “I’ve sometimes needed to talk to someone about a stressful situation. It’s fine to ask for help when you need it. I did.”
Demonstrate this as a sign of strength, not weakness, and maybe you can encourage more of your staff to access the care they need.

A direct link has been uncovered between poor staff mental health and poor pupil mental health – it really can pass like a virus across the classroom. The focus on the latter in recent years has often ignored the importance of the former – something that must change if we are going to improve the wellbeing of future generations.

That’s why we believe school leaders must work to end the continuing stigma that exists about seeking support at the earliest sign of poor mental health and wellbeing. It is not easy for teachers to do this unless the environment they work in is supportive and understanding. So I would like to see more heads promote our services – which are free, anonymous and confidential – so together we can improve staff wellbeing.

Our trained counsellors hear daily from those for whom the demands of ever-greater accountability, a growing testing culture and increasing workload are becoming too much. The consequence is a mounting recruitment and retention problem. Even more worrying is that our figures show that the number of cases for education staff under the age of 30 increased by 65 per cent (compared to the previous year).

And of course while I am asking you to ensure your staff seek help I am not forgetting the immense strain many heads themselves are under. We know from our counsellors’ feedback that senior leaders are far from immune.

We’ve seen calls from headteachers and deputy heads rise by 24 per cent. The growing pressures from both above and below are becoming unmanageable and this group is where we are seeing some of the most severe cases of poor mental health.

We will always support those working in education when they reach their lowest point, however we are also more determined than ever to reach teachers and education staff earlier to ensure their wellbeing never spirals out of control. Please help us do this. Heads can lead by example. Make sure their staff are informed about what we offer, how we can help and, above all else, encourage them to call if they need us.

As a charity we have significantly increased the support services we offer. As well as our helpline, we work directly in schools where our consultants have shown that by creating a culture where vulnerability and support are not perceived as weaknesses, significant improvements can be made to overall staff wellbeing within a workplace. 

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Education Support Partnership.

Further information

  • For help or advice contact the Education Support Partnership’s free 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 and for details of other support services, including the Headspace and Yourspace leadership support programmes, visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk
  • For posters for your staffrooms and other resources that can help, email us on enquiries@edsupport.org.uk


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