Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How feelings of injustice and betrayal can contribute to depression.

For those of you wondering why it has been so long since my last blog post, my own recent experience of this aspect of depressive illness explains the long silence.

In recent years, I have received many accounts from teachers suffering from mental conditions like depression and anxiety. It is quite common for them to cite injustice or betrayal as factors contributing to their condition.   They are typically teachers who have had long and successful careers and they often describe a misuse of monitoring or disciplinary procedures against them. 

They feel a strong sense of injustice.  Some feel betrayed by colleagues of long standing who they had formerly trusted and may have considered as friends.  These well-justified feelings have had a significant impact of the mental health of many.  It is not uncommon for such teachers to hold senior posts in schools and they may also have had a track record of outstanding OFSTED judgements in the past.

I took early retirement in 2006 as a result of a serious depressive illness.   By 2012 my condition had gradually, but significantly, improved.  However, it is fair to say that once subject to depression your resilience remains lower than it did before the illness first emerged.   I had learnt to spot the warning signs and took evasive action to stay healthy with some success until July of last year. In brief, here is what happened then. 

I, among others, had discovered evidence of some possible financial irregularities within a branch of the National Union of Teachers, a union that I have been an active member of for over 40 years.  I was also the Union’s National President in 2001-2. 

It seemed appropriate to obtain more information to see if our fears were grounded, but when access to documentation and the normal process of financial scrutiny at branch meetings was blocked, there seemed little alternative but to ‘whistle blow’ about our concerns. I expected the Union to take our concerns seriously but soon found that I was to be severely disappointed. Far from receiving the support as whistle blowers that you might expect in a trade union, there seemed to be an attempt to ‘sweep the problem under the carpet’.

I, among several other members, received warning letters from the Union’s solicitor initiated by decisions of National Officers, some of whom were long standing friends.  A Union ‘investigation’ was set up but was superficial in its scope and lacked  evidence to substantiate  its key conclusions.  The investigation attempted to exonerate the alleged wrongdoing and we immediately appealed against the findings.  There has never been a reply to that appeal letter.  

Almost immediately after the investigation was concluded, I and three others found ourselves charged under the Union’s disciplinary procedure with ‘bullying’ those who we had accused of financial malpractice.  The Union had been ‘sitting on’ these charges for several weeks.  We did not even know of their existence.  This is in breach of a key principle defined in Article 6 the European Convention of Human Rights.

All of this experience has had a dramatic impact on my health.  Feelings of betrayal and injustice overwhelmed me and I fell again into depression.  I was unable to even consider the matter for months.  Although the cloud of depression has now begun to lift, the events have set back my recovery significantly.  I am unable to discuss the detail of the disciplinary process and how it has developed, because I would put myself in breach of the Union’s rules if I did.  However, it remains unresolved over 7 months after its initiation.

The positive side of these events is that I now have an enhanced empathy for those many teachers who described the impact of injustice and betrayal on their mental health.

As a result of my illness, I have now stopped much of my work relating to teacher mental health. I am no longer taking speaking engagements or conducting any new research.  However, I do hope to post on this blog from time to time. 

You can return to my site here http://teachermentalhealth.org.uk/

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Stress and mental conditions excluded from teachers' insurance cover?

I have had it reported to me that when a teacher is looking for critical illness insurance cover it is only available if mental conditions and stress-related illness are excluded.

I have not found any hard evidence to back this up yet, but would like to know if anyone has had cover refused unless these exceptions are included. I'm particularly interested in teachers but would welcome responses from those in other occupations.  Please contact me if you have taken out critical illness cover with or without the exceptions.   Any responses will be treated in the strictest confidence.  I would only be interested in using anonymous data.

Please comment below or, to protect any personal data you may not wish to include on a public site, email responses to john@teachermentalhealth.org.uk

You can return to my site here http://teachermentalhealth.org.uk/

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Are UK teachers more likely to commit suicide than those in other countries?

My previous posts on teacher suicide have prompted me to do some more investigating.

When you search the internet for 'OFSTED' and 'suicide' this throws up a number of stories about teachers who have committed suicide and where OFSTED has been identified as a factor leading to the suicide.  Other work-related causes also feature in reports of teacher suicides.

I wondered if anyone had explored trends in teacher suicides to see if there were any common occupational  factors emerging. In my attempt to do this, I contacted the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University.

They advised me that "Coroners’ records are highly confidential and, from our own experience, it is very difficult to get the information required." However, they also sent me some research about suicides amongst different occupations in Denmark.

The research is concerned mainly with medical professionals but teachers are used as a 'control' occupation which allows us to see how teacher suicides in Denmark compare with the average for 'all occupations'.  Interestingly, in Denmark, teachers are LESS likely to commit suicide than 'all occupations'. Teacher suicide rates there are around 80% of the 'all occupations' rate.  In contrast, we know in the UK that teacher suicide rates are around 40% higher than for 'all occupations'. 

It is clear that further inquiry will be needed to draw any firm conclusions.  If worldwide teacher suicide rates were fairly consistent that would be unsurprising.  If they vary significantly, that prompts some investigation into the different expectations of teachers in different countries.

I now intend to investigate the differences between employment expectations in Denmark and the UK.  UK teachers often cite oppressive accountability systems and unmanageable work demands as major causes of work stress. These are two areas to consider in any comparison of teaching in Denmark and the UK.

I also think that there needs to be more investigation into the occupational causes of teacher suicides.  It isn't enough to cite the confidentiality of coroner's records as a reason for not looking at this in more detail. I have asked my MP, Vernon Coaker, to ask some ministerial questions about teacher suicide trends and am awaiting a response from him.

When I have more to say, I'll blog again.

You can return to my website here: http://teachermentalhealth.org.uk/

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Tragic Consequences of Teacher Stress

On Wednesday evening I received a call from BBC Radio York. It was the kind of request I get from time to time; would I be interviewed on their breakfast show the following day about teacher stress? 

That day there had been the inquest of a Harrogate teacher, David Charlesworth, who had tragically set fire to himself because of anxiety about pupil results. This was one of those events that inevitably precipitates media interest in a subject they are happy to ignore for most of the time. I don't know the details of this case and would not want to comment on it specifically, but what I do know is that teacher suicide, whilst mercifully rare, is steadily rising.

I have commented on this rise before.  Because numbers are small, there tends to be a fluctuation in numbers from year to year but teacher suicides are gradually rising since 2001.(Source - Office for National Statistics)

Whenever there is a suicide the coroner reports on the individual case.  In the case of teachers, work-related stress, and particularly that caused by OFSTED, is becoming a common feature of such reports. 

The fact that some teachers take their own lives because of work shows how serious the consequences of work stress can become. However, we know this is the grim tip of a very large iceberg. We know that thousands of teachers each year become ill because of work-stress. Of these, many choose or are forced to leave the profession through illness; but that is not news.  To hit the headlines something dramatic has to accompany their illness; like a suicide or a serious attack on a pupil.

One fact that does often emerge is that teachers who become seriously ill are viewed as being very conscientious.  They are usually well thought of by those they teach and the school community.  This is true of most other teachers who become ill, not just those who go on to take their own lives.

It is clear that the Government intend, through agencies like OFSTED, to put teachers under immense pressure at work.  The the head of OFSTED, Michael Wilshire, is on record as saying  "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right." 

The Government and OFSTED premise seems to be, put teachers under enough pressure and this will raise standards in schools.  They are happy to accept that this policy will drive teachers from the profession but I think they believe that they are simply driving out the weak or lazy ones. In fact it is some of the best teachers who become ill and leave.  These are the ones who attempt to chase the impossible demands placed on teachers. 

This policy results in around 38,000 new teachers being required each year to replace those lost.  The estimated cost of such recruitment and training being about £750million.

This policy is a disaster economically, and does not raise standards in schools. The evidence indicates exactly the opposite.  Schools that give high priority to tackling stress have lower staff absence, lower staff turnover and higher standards. (Source - Teacher Wellbeing)  

Worst of all is the human cost. Thousands of teachers are made seriously ill, often wrecking their lives, and in the worst cases this leads to suicides like that of David Charlesworth.

You can return to my website here: http://teachermentalhealth.org.uk/