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Mental Health Awareness in the UK Teaching Profession

A quick search on the internet highlights the growing awareness of mental health issues that are predominate within the modern education landscape. Thankfully, mental health is increasingly understood and subject to the same scrutiny as physical symptoms which tend to be more obvious and noticeable, especially in potentially stressful environments which include the classroom.

A variety of macro and socio-economic factors contribute to the risk of diminished mental health for all those engaged in the education sector including teachers, pupils, administrators and even parents. A lack of investment in infrastructure and facilities, staff and skill shortages, ever-spiralling pupil numbers in classrooms, plus an ever-spiralling administrative burden can create an atmosphere of intense pressure among those striving to succeed within UK Schools, Colleges and Universities.

The vast array of teaching jobs available in the UK highlight how this pressure is rendering the teaching profession as a less than attractive career-option than it was in previous generations. Figures published by the Department of Education in 2016 cited that one in ten teachers leave their education job each year and almost 25% leave the sector within three years. According to statistics published three years later in 2018, this trend has been reversed slightly with the number of those entering the profession almost on a par with those who are leaving.

To put these trends into perspective and to gain an understanding of the education sector’s scale, there are just over half a million full-time teachers working in UK schools to educate in excess of 10 million pupils. It is little wonder therefore that any decline in applications for teaching jobs, teaching assistants’ vacancies or general education roles has a debilitating effect on the sector as a whole and only intensifies the stresses on those struggling to deliver effective learning programmes demanded by Ofsted, parents and employers.

An article published in The Guardian in January 2018 highlighted increasing workloads, longer working hours and more bureaucracy as three of the primary reasons as to why teachers experience higher stress levels than other professions. A survey of four thousand teachers found that many suffered from a sense of worthlessness as they were unable to satisfy the requirements of school inspectors, Government targets and ambitious parents.

A YouGov survey published in 2017 discovered that 75% of teachers in the UK reported stress-related symptoms including the risk of panic attacks, bouts of depression and an overall feeling of anxiety; by way of balance, this figure compared with 62% for the working population as a whole.

Of course, pupils too suffer from poor mental health and the reasons for the problem are both varied and complex. School staff are often the last-resort to try and help pupils struggling with low self-esteem or the consequences of economic hardship or dysfunctional family backgrounds. Historically, teachers have not been trained to identify or cope with these very real issues which in itself only adds to a feeling of not being able to help in any meaningful way.

Solving society’s ills is the most complicated of topics especially when almost 7,000 pupils are permanently excluded from UK schools every year with almost half of all these exclusions having an acknowledged mental health need. Other headline figures estimate that 1 in 10 children suffer from a diagnosable mental health issue and 60% of the UK prison population were excluded from school at some point during their education. Predictably, the problems are most acute within inner cities and teaching job vacancies in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol are particularly high.

Thankfully, trawling the net reveals that mental health or stress-related issues within the education sector are now widely acknowledged and a raft of measures are being introduced to tackle both the initial problem and indeed the subsequent consequences. The Education Support Partnership (www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk) is a charity dedicated to improving the wellbeing of the entire education workforce and publishes a plethora of genuinely helpful content and mechanisms to help those suffering from mental health issues.

Shockingly, the charity predicts that over a third of education staff are expected to leave the profession by 2020 and their dedicated helpline is handling more and more calls each year. Another invaluable website which offers generic advise regarding looking after your mental health can be found at www.mentalhealth.org.uk which publishes a variety of tips, guides and research to assist us all meet the demands of our day-to-day lives.

Mental health among teachers is a vast subject, but it is encouraging that the problem is now firmly on the agenda as the next generation could be denied the benefits of a thriving education sector if the problems are not adequately addressed. Hopefully, a more sympathetic approach from future Governments and a reduction in red-tape will help, as will setting realistic budgets and sufficient investment in what is, truly, a sector largely responsible for the future of our nation. Broadly-speaking, teachers are caring individuals who need our support and understanding to ensure our children are adequately prepared for adulthood, work and family live; quite simply, where would we be without them?

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