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School leaders need suicide prevention training amid ‘mental health emergency’

All school leaders should be given suicide prevention training to help tackle a “mental health emergency” within the teaching profession, a union has said.

Teachers’ mental health is in “crisis” and some staff are being “driven to the point of suicide” by the stresses of the job, the NASUWT teaching union’s annual conference in Harrogate, Yorkshire, heard.

A motion passed at the conference called on the union’s executive to campaign for Mental Health First Aid trained staff in all schools and colleges, as well as fully funded mandatory mental health training.

Delegates at the union’s conference on Sunday heard of teachers who had suicidal thoughts – and in some cases had taken their own lives.

Delegates voted for the union to campaign for suicide prevention training for all school leaders, as well as implementing suicide prevention and awareness training for caseworkers and union representatives.

It came after the death of Ruth Perry, headteacher at Caversham Primary School in Reading, Berkshire, who took her own life after an Ofsted report downgraded the school from its highest rating to its lowest over safeguarding concerns.

Row Martin, proposer of the motion, listed a number of teachers who had taken their lives in recent years – including school leader Mrs Perry.

At the conference, she said: “This is a hard motion to speak about, but we have to speak about. It is a very sensitive, real issue of our profession.”

“We cannot afford to lose any more teachers,” Ms Martin added.

Depression stock
A survey of 11,754 NASUWT members found 84% of teachers experienced more work-related stress in the last year (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

The motion, which was unanimously carried, warned of a “rise in suicide, suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts” among teachers, and it said the union was concerned the number “will only increase”.

It noted that the pressures of the job are leading to “a mental health emergency” within the profession and teachers’ health is reaching “a crisis point”.

During the debate, delegate Kuldip Hoonjan, from Leicestershire, spoke of her two teacher friends who had taken their lives.

She said: “There was anger, grief and why.

“We searched with what we could have done. What [we] should have done. My own personal experience is too painful to share today.”

One teacher, who did not wish their name to be published, told the conference that she had had suicidal thoughts after starting at a school with challenging pupil behaviour.

She said: “Being there has just brought me to my knees and brought on a severe bout of depression.

“I’ve been in a very dark place in these last few months to the point where I have repeatedly thought of suicide. I also have thought about leaving a career of 20 years.”

She added: “We are being failed and we together need to work to do more to protect ourselves, each other and the pupils in our schools.”

Delegate Karen Brocklebank suggested that the “stresses of rigorous classroom inspections, Government targets, unmanageable amounts of paperwork and 50 hour plus working weeks” had seen an increase in suicide rates and serious mental health problems among school staff.

She said: “Ofsted is an obvious stressor to educators, but other evidence has claimed that teachers are being driven to the point of suicide, alcoholism and weight disorders by stresses of the job”

Ms Brocklebank, who called for school staff to be given the tools to tackle poor mental health in the profession, said: “One suicide is one too many.”

Her comments came after a poll by the NASUWT union found that 23% of teachers increased their alcohol intake in the past year because of work, while 12% reported using antidepressants.

Among the members questioned, 3% said they had self-harmed in the last 12 months because of work.

The survey, of 11,754 NASUWT members in the UK between October and December last year, found 84% of teachers experienced more work-related stress in the last year.

Delegate Claire Ward spoke of a suicidal member who had reached out to her to say they had planned to take their life and had written their note.

She said: “I was shaking. I couldn’t think of anything other than what had happened for days. It woke me up for weeks on and off.”

Ms Ward added: “I hadn’t had any official training and the experience left its mark.”

Richard Kempa, from north Northamptonshire, said: “Mental health is (in) crisis in our profession. It is a crisis. There’s no getting away from it.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “We recognise the extraordinary work that headteachers, teachers and other staff in schools provide, and we take their wellbeing very seriously.

“Our Education Staff Wellbeing Charter ensures that staff wellbeing policy is integrated within schools’ culture alongside the expansion of our £2 million investment to provide professional supervision and counselling to school and college leaders.”

For mental health support, contact the Samaritans on 116 123, email them at josamaritans.org or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.