I have a depression and anxiety disorder. In my history there is a pattern of depression, panic-attacks and self-harm that began when I was a teenager, but bloomed like a weed when I left high school. And, in my early years of teaching, I was neither diagnosed nor effectively treated for my disorder. I’m sure you can imagine how that affected me in my role as teacher.
For people who haven’t suffered from depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to understand what it feels like for those of us that do. Depression goes far deeper than sadness, and anxiety goes beyond nerves. It’s the difference between hopping over a creek, and wading through a raging torrent of water. Without treatment, both these conditions steal the shine from life. And yet, while you’re suffering from the illness it can be incredibly difficult to work up the energy or courage to do anything about it.
As a young teacher, I mostly kept my shit together in the classroom. I saved my meltdowns for my boyfriend (now my husband). I went to doctors and got told to exercise more. I went to counsellors and felt better in the moment, then spiralled downwards for another week. I was reluctant to take medication because of the stigma around taking medication for mental health issues. I was constantly on edge, constantly just hanging on. In a profession where you often take emotional and physical responsibility for young people. Where even mentally-healthy teachers go home and wonder what more they could do, what had they missed, who was slipping through the cracks.
For me, I didn’t get a diagnosis or effective treatment (in the form of medication and talk-therapy) until I’d had my first child. Everyone’s on the look out for new mothers to be struggling, they’re not necessarily on the look out for new teachers to be struggling. With help from my GP, and a gargantuan effort from the beautiful man I’m married to, I finally go the help I need. But, if you’re reading this and it strikes a chord, have you gotten the help you need?
I’m don’t mean to imply that teaching caused my depression and anxiety disorder. It didn’t. I have a genetic predisposition, and a personality that compounds that. Maybe you do to. But teaching, like many caring professions, is an industry that asks us to put our needs second again, and again. And it draws people to it that want to care and give their all to others.
If you’re reading this and nodding along, I urge you to talk to your mentor, your colleague, your partner, your GP. If you’re a young teacher and you think these feelings might just go away, then you might be right. But they might not. And there is no shame in asking for help. Being mentally unwell didn’t make me a better teacher – it made me a distracted, stressed, emotional teacher. Maybe not in the classroom, but certainly behind closed doors.
For me, my disorder is one I’ll need to manage for life. I accept that, just as if I had asthma or any other chronic condition. You might be like me. Or, this might be a transitory thing. Whatever your situation, finding the right help can only be a win for you…and your students.