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How Teaching Saved Me in the Midst of Depression

I am a secondary school math teacher and I also have depression and anxiety. I am able to continue as a teacher because of the support I have received from and through my places of work because they have allowed me to be flexible when I’ve needed it.

In my experience, teaching takes you through all the emotions. You will have some amazing, funny, proud and hysterical moments. Also probably some panic, embarrassment and exhaustion. When you put yourself in the hands of a vocational career, you can often expect this and as a result, you may also make some of the closest friends of your life through teaching. But this isn’t an advertisement to get you to the chalk face. This is about how being a teacher has helped me.

At university, I had my first major depressive episode, perhaps triggered by the stress of being 200 miles from home, finding the work hard, too much socializing and experiencing my first proper relationship with the usual ups and downs. This relationship, though, was also my savior. I could talk to someone and he cared about me — in fact, he loved me and supported me and somehow I got through. I remember feeling my first major confidence crisis when applying for jobs, and it turns out that banking wasn’t for me. When I found teaching, I knew I had found my thing. I loved it from the start. I loved my subject – math. I loved the nurturing, creativity and intuition it required to be a good teacher. Standing in front of a class of 30 or so teenagers might sound daunting, but once you have earned that mutual respect, it is worth working for. Teaching really made me happy.

I had been teaching for about a decade when I had my second major depressive episode. The effects of my illness had mostly been playing out in my home life, with me “going off the rails” a little bit, drinking too much and experiencing some physical symptoms. My mother passed away following a brutal illness and I miscarried after having been trying for a baby for six years. I was putting a massive amount of pressure on myself to be the best teacher I could be for my school, my department and my students. I just wasn’t looking after myself. I used to drive to school thinking, Where can I turn around? What excuse have I got to go home? I’d leave my classroom and burst into tears. I felt no connection with my students or my work. Eventually, the Head Teacher pulled me aside. He had noticed I was smiling less and looked tense and withdrawn. The deputy advised me to see my doctor and pursue free counseling that was available through the county council at the time. I did as they suggested and also reduced my timetable to 80 percent for a year. My school and my colleagues were very supportive of me. My doctor recommended antidepressants which I was reluctant to take, as we were still trying for a baby, but on measuring it all out, I took her advice and settled on a six month course of medication. For me though, the counseling was the biggest eye-opener. I was fortunate to be assigned to someone with whom I immediately felt I had a rapport. I hadn’t realized how much trauma I had been through in my life since childhood, and how much I needed to unpack. I hadn’t realized how unhealthy my ways of thinking and behaving had become until we started to talk. I took the free six sessions, then bargained for another six and then, still in need, they allowed me to continue as a private patient.

I was managing my work and coping much better when I found out I was pregnant. Then, after waiting seven years for one baby, we had two more in pretty quick succession. I feel really lucky not to have been affected by postnatal depression. I was certainly very low when first pregnant, probably due to hormones, but I loved pregnancy, childbirth and having my young children around me. I missed teaching, but we made a decision as a family that my husband would continue with his career and I would pick mine back up when we could manage. I did manage to squeeze in a bit of tutoring on some evenings. One to one sessions fly by and are really rewarding for both participants. When my youngest was at preschool, I decided to volunteer and I became a trustee on the management committee and soon became chair as we tried to raise the Ofsted rating of the struggling setting. Unfortunately, being a trustee wasn’t the rewarding and exciting experience I’d hoped for and I faced working with some very unpleasant people who seemed to have no compassion or empathy for anyone else. This triggered my third major depressive episode. I lost all confidence and could not imagine myself ever going back in front of a class again, let alone working within an institution. This was hard as I knew I got a buzz out of all the things teaching offered but I was just too low to have committed to any kind of paid regular work in a school.

I continued volunteering in my children’s infant school, helping with numeracy and being on the PTA. I remain so grateful to them. They knew about the conflicts I had been involved in and also knew my background as a teacher and a parent. They knew about my depression as I felt comfortable enough to share it with them. I felt so welcome and safe working within the school and could dip in and out as an extra pair of hands when I was up to it.

Then a game changer happened. As I was picking my children up from an after school activity, a teacher with whom I had worked 10 years previously asked me if I would consider doing some GCSE Math intervention at their school, just five minutes down the road. I said no, scared to commit still. But then I was encouraged by a friend to go in and talk to the Head about what they needed and what I felt I could manage. I had been very open about what I had been going through and some teachers at the school knew me and must have thought I was still capable of fulfilling the role, or they didn’t tell the head teacher not to hire me, anyway! A year and a half later and I am back in teaching. I only do six hours a week and I don’t take my own classes, I just work within the classroom of other staff. I have my students who I take out to do small group work with, some who I see for extra math practice at lunch (yes, they flock to this voluntarily!) and I love it again.

I feel very fortunate to have been given this chance. I know I’m an excellent teacher, but I could not commit to a role with more responsibility. Two mornings a week I get up, get ready for work, drop my children off at school then put on my lanyard and go to my school. One morning a week, I still volunteer in the infants school. I love working with the students and the staff and get a buzz from this again. The senior staff and the head teacher are as caring for me as they are for their longest serving staff or any other. They ask me if I’d like to take on other groups or time slots and give me time to think about it and if I come back and say that what I am doing at the moment is enough, then that is fine. There is no rush, one day I’d like to have my own class again, my team, but only when I’m ready.

It can be important for self-esteem to have a job, it can be a necessity, it can be what makes you who you are. I am pleased and proud that I have been open about my depression with those I work with. I know I’m very fortunate to have received support and that I have the opportunity I do now. I feel respected, not judged and I know the students I work with benefit from having me in their classroom just as much as I benefit from the lift I get from teaching them. It is part of my routine, and for me, routine keeps me ticking. Teachers are a lovely bunch, full of empathy and concern for others, it’s in their nature and they all deserve support.

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Thinkstock photo via recep-bg.

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