Richard Garner: How stressed staff 'soldier on' for fear of showing weakness

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The Independent Online

Every day at least one teacher contacts a special 24-hour helpline pleading for help in coping with life in the classroom. Often it is in the middle of the night, at two or three in the morning. The case of Peter Harvey might be extreme, but the stress he was under is far from unusual.

"In some cases there might be a risk they could harm themselves or be a risk to others," said Julian Stanley, head of the Teachers' Support Network, which was set up to provide emergency help in such cases. "But thankfully such cases are rare."

The number of calls to the hotline is steadily increasing, with more and more teachers citing stress or depression as the reason for their call. In the first three months of last year, 19 per cent of the calls were prompted by stress; the figure for this year was more than 25 per cent.

John Illingworth, a former primary school head who had to retire at 55 after a mental breakdown, said he was not surprised by the rise.

"Increasing demands are being placed on [teachers] by the attempts to micro-manage what goes on in schools," he said. "Then there is the lack of control they feel they have over their working lives as they attempt to comply with that – there are huge numbers leaving the profession as a result. According to the Samaritans, stress rates among teachers are 40 per cent higher than the average for other professions."

Mr Illingworth began suffering serious mental health problems while he was still running Bentinck primary school in Nottingham and soon realised he could not go on.

"I decided to remove the cause of the stress and did that by leaving the job," he said. "A lot of people do, but it's the people who decide to soldier on that most worry me. They are very reluctant to take time off work and they feel they can't talk to colleagues or managers about it for fear of showing weakness. They drive themselves into the ground – and when they crack, they crack big time."

Since his breakdown, Mr Illingworth, a former president of the National Union of Teachers, has been encouraging those who find themselves in the same position to seek advice. He retired from teaching four years ago but said he still feels the symptoms of his illness.

Research by the Teacher Support Network shows that 87 per cent of teachers have suffered from stress in the past two years. Two-thirds said they had experienced anxiety and almost half had suffered from depression. Problems included trouble sleeping and lack of concentration. Some respondents even said they had contemplated suicide.

The symptoms can also influence behaviour in the classroom, particularly if pupils sense the teacher is struggling. During Peter Harvey's trial, one of his colleagues said the science teacher had told him a few weeks before the incident that he was worried he had lost the respect of his pupils, when before he had not found keeping discipline a problem.

Asked how the symptoms manifested themselves, 50 per cent of teachers said their stress led to sudden mood swings. High blood pressure was also cited.

"I once was at a meeting of headteachers and asked them how many of them were on medication for high blood pressure. Almost every hand in the room went up," said Mr Illingworth.

He believes that the Training and Development Agency, which is responsible for teacher recruitment, could lower recruitment costs if it did more to retain existing staff and support them. In the past two years, the agency has spent nearly £1.5bn on recruitment, much of it on seeking replacements for staff who have quit the profession.