The Disparaging Conversation I Overheard at Work About Mental Illness


Today, this is what I overheard in the Senior Leadership room in a primary school:

“Another TA has been signed off long term with…” (cue disparaging tone) “anxiety and depression.”

I didn’t turn around so can’t be sure, but the sense of inverted comma hand gestures hung in the air. I took a deep breath and continued with my work. This wasn’t unusual.

“That’s four staff members off with ‘mental health problems,’ isn’t it?” The conversation continued and I shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s ridiculous!” The other staff person said.

“Yeah and you have to be really careful because mental health is really big at the moment.”

I choked on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment — lol — like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase, I thought sarcastically.

“Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has anxiety and depression. I asked how old she was and she said — can you believe this? — 20!” The deputy head laughed. It sounded evil, but that’s probably just me.

“I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work.” The support staff leader nodded approvingly.

“Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing.”

I felt my hackles rising. I wondered if they could see my shoulders tense. My eyes were burning a hole in my computer screen. I couldn’t turn around.

I know. It’s a classic — and we’re all a bit bored of this analogy, but in my head, I replaced ‘anxiety and depression’ with a physical problem, say “heart problems,” and tried played the revised conversation in my head.

“Another TA has been signed off long term with…” (cue disparaging tone) “heart problems.”

I didn’t turn around so can’t be sure, but the sense of inverted comma hand gestures was in the air. I took a deep breath and continued with my work. I reminded myself this wasn’t unusual.

‘That’s four staff members off with ‘organ disease.’” I shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s ridiculous!” The other staff person said.

“Yeah and you have to be really careful because physical illness is really big at the moment.”

I choked on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment — lol — like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase, I thought sarcastically.

“Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has heart problems. I asked how old she was and she said — can you believe this? — 20!” The deputy head laughed. It sounded evil, but that’s probably just me.

“I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work.” The support staff leader nodded approvingly.

“Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing.”

Obviously, this little exercise does nothing to assuage my rage at the situation. I am reeling. This time last year, I had an OCD crisis. I have them every decade or so, but the rest of the time, I’m fine. In those eight weeks of complete and utter misery, I had four days off. In those four days, my mother (retired thank goodness) stayed with me to help me survive. Every other day, I dragged myself into school and cried in the bathroom all through break and lunch. Oh, and erm, I’m 33.

One of the people in the discussion I overheard picked up the phone.

“Hi there, I hear someone is off with ‘anxiety and depression’ again?”

The word “again” sits heavily on my chest. I’m finding it hard to breathe — and it’s not anxiety.

“Well, I know, but we have to be so careful with these mental health problems.”

I leave the room. And wrote this.

Should I have said something? Probably. Did I? No. Well, no one knows I have mental health problems at work. I’m too ashamed to tell them. I wonder why.

This piece originally appeared on IntrusiveThoughts.org

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