Is it "time for teachers to look after their mental health"?

Bradley and Phillipa think so. They told me so in the guardian.

I get excited when I see headlines like this: stress in the workplace is hugely damaging for teachers, and, more importantly, for the children they teach. Anything which raises this issue with teachers and the wider world is a good thing, I always think.

But as I read on, I became increasingly disappointed and, by the end of the article, quite angry with the message it was sending to me. You can read it here, but for those who would rather not, I'll summarise. "Teachers will not be able to help students 'be well' if their own wellbeing is impaired. Their own wellbeing is impaired (67% of NASUWT respondents said that their mental health had been impacted by their job), so they should do something about it. We have tips: Have a relationship, do a mindfulness, learn a thing, play a thing, and give a thing to someone". 

Fine. These are fine. For anyone who doesn't recognise them they're the 5 'research-grounded' ways the NHS advises us to be well. Uninspiring, but they do work: that's what the research tells us. Perhaps it's useful to be reminded of them. Perhaps there are people who will read this kind of article and remember that playing a sport helped them to expunge their anxieties and will do so. My suspicion is that they won't: I suspect the people who want to play sports will play them whether or not Philippa and Bradley tell them to, but I've always been a cynic.

The problem, I think, is where this article locates the responsibility for teacher wellbeing: the private life of the teacher. It's the same problem I find in the way we treat childhood mental health - i.e. as something that children are responsible for, as organisms that need medicalising, rather than parts of a system which is dysfunctional.

Articles like this tell us that we teachers are responsible for our responses to our working lives, and that the only place that we can hope to make changes is in our private lives. Sacrifice even more, we are told, in order that we can provide for student wellbeing. At no point are we advised to make meaningful changes in the systems we are a part of. At no point is it suggested that 'un-wellbeing' might be the correct response to a shitty situation.

A different approach would start from those 67% of teachers whose mental health has been affected by their job front and centre, and ask: "what do we need to change in the system that you're a part of so that you can be the kind of well-adjusted adult that the children need you to be?" 

Similarly, this kind of systemic approach might suggest that if childhood depression is rising, we should change the way we treat children, rather than giving them SSRIs.

But this kind of thinking is not available to a public discourse saturated with evidence bases and research indicators, all of which are fundamentally top-down and conservative. Our education system, and our mental health system, have an ever-decreasing space for users voices to be seriously heard. Advice found in articles such as this may help us to forget how awful the system is, or to make a kind of peace with it, but they do little to change the cause of our stress-symptoms, and so will not change the experiences of teachers or children in any meaningful way.