I should have acted at the first sign of trouble. A perfectly innocent email dropped in my inbox and I cried. A lot. For about 10 minutes.
I turned 32 last year. I have a beautiful two-year-old and an incredible wife. Yet I found myself laying on my parents’ couch and sobbing uncontrollably. It’s safe to say that 2018 was an appalling year for me.
Without knowing how I got there, I had plummeted into a black hole of depression and anxiety so deep that I no longer wanted to be alive. When my little boy cried, my stomach would lurch with anxiety and panic. The thought of going in to work every day gave me a 10-tonne weight on my chest. Working as a head of department in an unstable environment for months had destroyed my mind’s ability to rationalise. I was gone, mentally. Totally.
‘Threat’, ‘drive’ and ‘soothe’
Working my way out of this – something I’m continuing to do – has forced me to consider education in the wider sense and the systems we find ourselves in. Two things are now abundantly clear. Firstly, the cruellest thing about depression and anxiety is that it’s like a living death, but one you can only really fix from inside – albeit with some help from others.
Secondly, if we take a look at the literature on mental health and map it onto our educational context in the UK, the system is inadvertently encouraging everyone within the education profession into behaviours which might seem rational, but are profoundly harmful to their own, and others’, mental health.
At my lowest point, I sought help from a therapist. I wasn’t all that encouraged to begin with; I explained that work had been tough, my son wasn’t sleeping well, and that I felt like a failure. She drew three circles on a sheet of paper – the same sheet of paper that remains on the table whenever I see her now. Each circle had a word inside it - ‘Threat’, ‘Soothe’ and ‘Drive’.
The approach we used is called Compassion Focussed Therapy, and has roots in evolutionary psychology. It works on the idea that we all have three parts to our brain (see panel). When we perceive threats in our environment, they effectively trigger a panic state in the brain that can have a long lasting and dire impact on our mental health. As the most powerful part of the brain, this ‘threat’ system controls the override, much like a fire alarm whose only job is to get people out of a building.
Unfortunately, while our threat system is good at telling us to run from tigers, it’s less great at finding answers to complex problems. Our bodies tell us when we’re in threat mode via palpitations, sweating, breathlessness and that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach or chest. Some of which may sound familiar…
On reflection, I ignored all the warning signs. Repeated wakefulness during the night to attend to my mental ‘to do’ list; not chatting to my wife; not seeing friends or family; not exercising; not eating. I felt powerless to stop it, so I did nothing. Why didn’t I do something earlier?
Everything in our society – and I include education in this – is essentially structured in a way that encourages us to forget that we’re evolved beings whose brains haven’t evolved solely to meet the challenges of modern living. Unless we consciously remind ourselves of this and make space between ourselves and our thoughts, feelings and emotions, we’re going to be in for a tricky ride.
Luckily for us, however, our minds have also evolved a fail-safe mechanism. By nurturing our human ‘Soothe’ brain, we can calm our systems, improve our mental health and create better environments for us to work in.
When I realised that the therapeutic model I’d been working with was about ‘compassion’, my heart sank. I didn’t want to be told that by being nice to myself and others, everything would be okay – but I was wrong. Compassion is about honesty and warmth, not simply ‘being nice.’ It speaks to our ‘Soothe’ brains by encouraging us to treat ourselves in a more kind and honest way, and to recognise some of the unhelpful things a ‘threat-addled’ brain might be telling us.
By understanding ourselves better and being kinder in the process, we can start to understand the point of departure we see in others, both colleagues and students alike. We’re evolved to benefit from both receiving kindness and passing it on to others.
That got me thinking about whether the same principle can apply to wider systems, as well as individuals. What if the education system itself is forcing us to focus on outcomes and external measures to justify our own existence? What are the implications if schools’ validation comes only from external sources, such as exam results, rather than the quality of relationships within the building?
The pressures we currently see on headteachers and staff to conform to a competition-based model of education, with league tables at their heart, has led to the very opposite of healthy systemlevel mental behaviours. Schools should emphasise ‘Soothe-Drive’ behaviours – being driven to achieve results from a place of warmth and compassion. A ‘Threat-Drive’ school starts from entirely the wrong place, and will lead to appalling consequences for staff.
One phone call and a pitch later, I found myself researching and writing a book, The Compassionate Teacher, which explores and explains how we can improve our own mental health as individuals working within schools, while offering some practical tips from a teaching perspective on maintaining a manageable work-life balance.
A way out
Moving forward, there is a way out of this quagmire. To a degree, systemic change is out of our control, but we can bring about a cultural shift. This begins by seeing ourselves as part of a much bigger picture, in relation to those systems exerting pressure on us. If can do this collectively, we can start creating the schools our teachers and young people deserve.
Individually, we can practise things like Soothing Rhythm Breathing to calm ourselves (there are plenty of free guides online), being conscious of those things we appreciate in our lives, or simply being more of aware our feelings and what might trigger them.
Sometimes, the honesty we provide for ourselves can tell us things we might not want to hear – particularly if it’s the realisation that the school we work at may be detrimental to our wellbeing. The point, however, is this – unless we’re prepared to recognise our own warning signs and do something about it, both individually and collectively, things will only get worse.
Our three-part brains
The most basic and powerful part of our evolved brains from our reptilian days
Linked with status and achievement, stemming from our evolution into mammals
A more recently evolved component linked to the ‘human’ behaviours of attachment, kindness, care and affection (It’s worth reflecting here that humans are at the top of the evolutionary tree because we learned to cooperate)
Andy Sammons leads English at a large secondary comprehensive in West Yorkshire; The Compassionate Teacher is available now, published by John Catt.