Lost Connections: is our education system collectively sick with anxiety and depression? | Education Support Partnership

Lost Connections: is our education system collectively sick with anxiety and depression?

Head of English Andy Sammons reflects on what helped him recover from a mental health crisis and what schools can learn from his experience.

It’s almost exactly a year to the day since I slumped on my parents’ couch and stared blankly at the television. My team were in the Champions League Quarter Final, and their victory in the tournament in 2005 had reduced me to tears of joy: now, all I saw were blurred colours on the screen in front of me. I felt utterly, utterly empty. So, I took my prescription of Zopiclone – a sleeping tablet – and could not wait for the effects to kick in. After six months of work enveloping me, I was mentally shot to pieces.

I thought I needed to take personal responsibility for the results of all year 11 students. At one point it was pointed out to me that people’s mortgages were at stake based on these results: everything I loved about my job had become an item on a to-do list, and every day was a new chance for the list to grow and for failure to rear its ugly head.

On reflection, I ignored all of the warning signs: increasing wakefulness, growing distance from my family, and a total loss of interest in anything and everything.

As my lucidity gradually – and painfully - returned, I was desperate to make sense of what happened to me, and why. It felt so horrific, yet so profound at the same time.

I can honestly say with complete confidence that comfortably the most useful book in understanding depression and anxiety came from Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections. In it, he meticulously details the history of mental health – as well as the things that harm and supposedly alleviate it.

The book has had a profound influence on the writing of my own book and understanding of mental health. Hari argues beautifully that as humans we are evolved to thrive amidst a web of meaningful connections- connections to ourselves, our purpose, other people and also our work.

The literature – and general focus- on mental health is thankfully increasing. Whether it is down to the powers that be genuinely caring or desperately grasping at straws to stem the flood of teachers leaving the profession is unclear. Irrespective of this, though, as individuals it’s worth reflecting on our own school contexts as educators. 

Only when I began to reconnect to the things that I truly loved did I begin to find my way through the dreadful mist that had descended upon me. I had to go back to basics and begin to spend more time with my little boy, to make space for the tiniest of things that had always brought me so much joy. Only from that place could I begin to truly reconnect to my love for teaching.

In turn, I think schools need to start seeing themselves as places of meaningful connection, too. By this, I mean connections to values, staff, students, each other, and the wider community; this must begin at the level of leadership. A failure of leadership leads to the risks of pressure being passed through the system exponentially. It feels as if too many schools have become preoccupied- and in some cases entirely defined- by doing rather than being. They might throw in the odd afternoon of yoga but to a certain extent, it feels as if too many -perhaps even the majority- of schools have lost their core purpose.

A mission statement sounds nice, but too many are finding it hard to live out decent and proper values in the current context. One solution is for schools to begin to listen, and waiting for the big picture to change simply isn’t enough. If we don’t have the humility to begin by asking the right questions about how all stakeholders are feeling, then we’re damned from the start.

As teachers, we need to begin to see ourselves as part of a much bigger picture, and once we start to understand this then we can begin to create space between how we are experiencing the world, and we can start to connect meaningfully to the crucial work we do every day for the young people in front of us every day.

I’ve reflected more thoroughly on this in my book The Compassionate Teacher, which is published by John Catt Educational. If you’re interested, do give it a try, and let me know what you think- I’m on Twitter @andy_samm.

In addition I urge you not to ignore the mental health warning signs like I did. Please get in touch with the counsellors at the Education Support Partnership and get support when you need it.  

Their free and confidential helpline is here 24/7 throughout the UK on 08000 562561 for all education staff.

Andy Sammons is a Head of English at a large comprehensive school in Wakefield.