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Surviving a mental breakdown: returning to teaching

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” -Christopher Reeve

sheetal trapped

In 2020, like many, I gave birth to my baby boy during the pandemic and circulated my village for around two years before returning to work. You may have read before, the joy of returning was unreal; I had missed adult interaction, the children’s laughter but most of all – my work. Things didn’t seem to go to plan and before long I was in another school experiencing the aftermath of burnout; dissociation amnesia and PTSD.

Without realising, my body had moved on but my mind had stayed stuck in a moment of time – wanting to change how I was. I desperately wanted to go to the school I loved but I didn’t cope very well with the stress and people’s behaviour. Things were happening and I couldn’t stop it – months later, I realised I was suffering from dissociation amnesia.

For the first time in twenty years, I had quit every job that came my way. I longed to go back to pre-pandemic times when I was happy in the school, I called home. But as we know, we can’t go back in time and ‘fix things!’

So I plodded along and my mind had become a victim of war – I was experiencing what the soldiers experienced – I felt numb. I was unable to have any positive or loving feeling to what I enjoyed before, and it was hard to forget about the trauma I felt from the ‘push-back’ I received from members of staff. To this day, they do not know what they put me through – why would anyone believe me? I was a confident, driven teacher – I was naturally very good at what I did so someone like me – could not experience trauma! Returning to work in a stressful environment gave me psychosis – I was not going to hear another negative comment towards me – I quit.

For a while, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to ever teach again. But I accidentally ended up in a secondary school and that’s when the realisation came, and I met the children I abruptly left – it had been two years, but my mind had kept that moment in time raw. It was like it was yesterday. My memories vanished; I suffered severe brain fog, and I couldn’t even read to the kids anymore.

For the first time, I was drawn to spiritual healing, and I can say with my hand on my heart – ‘I came back’ and I was able to teach again. It has taken a lot of time, patience and a big support network. I wish my colleagues had seen that I was not in a good place; that I was acting out of character because I wasn’t myself. I would do things; have conversations – walk away and not remember a single event. I applied for a job without realising I applied; I resigned without even knowing I had written a resignation letter; I was telling everyone I was leaving without realising I was leaving. I can’t turn back time and change things but I have forgiven myself for taking too much on and putting myself through the worst experience of my life.

I thank the team that noticed I wasn’t myself and sent me home. I thank that they put my wellbeing before any school tasks. I’m not sure whether I would have survived otherwise.

As teachers and leaders, we often put school priorities at the forefront. But without a healthy staff, there is no school to run. It is easy to talk about mental health, but does anyone actually walk the talk? For the first time in 2 years, I have hopped around unintentionally and can say that 1 in 4 schools took mental health seriously. According to Young Minds, 83% of young people with mental health needs agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse! It is about time the nation got a wake up call; it is not until you have been through it do you realise how awful it can actually be!

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The author

Sheetal is an experienced education leader in the Primary education sector. She has worked in a variety of settings in London in different leadership roles and has completed programmes such as the National Qualification for Headship. She has been responsible for many curriculum areas including English, RSE and Assessment and is currently working as an Assistant Headteacher in a secondary school and is interested in becoming involved in Further Education. As well as promoting diversity, equality and mental health, she has always been invested and successful at driving school improvement, curriculum design and achieving the best pupil outcomes through Carol Dweck’s growth mindset approach. She now lives and teaches in Oxfordshire.

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