Taking Care of Me: Let’s Talk Mental Health
It’s taken a long time for me to accept that travel anxiety and panic attacks are part of who I am. I didn’t struggle with my mental health as a child, or as a young adult, and I have thoroughly enjoyed progressing in my teaching career to date. 17 years ago I started out as a secondary mathematics teacher in East London, and a short while after I became a mentor, then worked with the borough mathematics lead at the time to develop an interactive mathematics curriculum, and subsequently moved on to becoming a Head of Department. I successfully completed a Masters alongside my NQT and NQT +1 year, and was graded outstanding by Ofsted for my use of project based learning within the mathematics classroom, instead of more traditional methods of teaching.
As part of my research, I was able to take my ideas and successfully implement them in a couple of other schools within East London, and it was this desire to make a difference to mathematics teaching and learning as a whole that lead me to accepting a lecturer in mathematics education post, 13 years ago. Since then I have worked in an FE college in the West Midlands, set up a youth academy in East London, completed a CertHE and then subsequently an MSc in Biomedical Engineering, and have worked in teacher education in 3 other higher educational institutions across London, before beginning my current post as a Senior Lecturer at the University of East London. Many trainees over the years have asked about how to progress in this profession, as well as about my own pathway in this career, and I’ve always encouraged them to invest extra time in additional responsibilities within a school environment once they gain employment, in order to learn and develop, and move into positions of leadership.
I lived by this rule for many years, but it was only when my own mental health issues became a struggle that I realised how important it was to stop and take a step back.
Forcing myself to stop and process life events from the last 17 years, made me realise that
I had been dealing with the impact of bullying and racism, abuse from a previous marriage, negativity and judgment because I chose to divorce, a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome triggered by high levels of stress, infertility in a my second marriage, a risky pregnancy, and being a first time mum with a baby who had congenital heart disease.
My work had become my escape, and investing so much time and energy into each role I had taken on, was simply a way to ignore the realities of life that I was having to deal with alongside. It was only inevitable then, that in amongst all this chaos in my personal life, something had to give, and unfortunately this came out with a sudden onset of panic attacks and extreme travel anxiety 4 years ago, which had a knock on affect on my IBS symptoms and general health too. In the 17 years I have worked as a teacher, I have met many students, (and staff), who have struggled with their mental health and well-being, and have always directed them to the university support available. But it was only after I had my first panic attack, and started to struggle with my own mental health that I realised how easily it took over every part of my life, and how difficult each day had become.
Even though I have seen the change in attitudes towards mental health issues and an increase in support and raising awareness about the challenges faced by many, as a South Asian Muslim woman I have also seen the stigma around opening up and talking about mental health issues in this community. As a result my support network only included my husband, however as my own struggles started to impact how I worked I had to step-up and start talking about what was really going on both at work and in my own social circles.
As I navigated my way through the new challenges I faced day-to-day, I became more empathetic of the struggles that some of my trainees were facing too, and I started to reassess my role in raising awareness of the importance of prioritising health first and providing the right support to trainees.
The more I opened up to trainees about my own journey, the more they opened up about their mental health and well-being challenges and the support they needed in order to navigate the training year, and so I was able to advise and guide accordingly and speak with mentors and schools about the support available to trainees in that environment too.
This academic year, I have learnt the hard way, that prioritising your own health and well-being far outweighs anything else, and being direct and asking for support is better than waiting until things take a turn for the worst.
Sharing my story with those around me, and especially with trainees, has allowed them to appreciate that they are not alone in this, and struggling with mental health issues doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in the career paths they have chosen. It has also shown them that it’s okay to speak up and seek out the support that workplaces offer to see if responsibilities can we adapted to ensure success in their work whisky maintaining good mental health, and to be open about their mental health, as well as their physical health, with their co-workers, line managers and employers.
And finally: it’s taken me years to accept this, but past trauma has a way of creeping up in you when you least expect in, and can be triggered by anything or anyone. My IBS symptoms may never go away, and I know that anxiety and panic attacks seem to be here to stay too. But, on the advice of medical professionals, my loved ones, and with the support of my employer, I have been having therapy once a week since October 2020, and alongside this I have found that asking for what I need to continue to prosper in my working life has made a huge difference to my mental and physical health.
I hope that sharing my story, will help others realise that you can have a successful and enjoyable career in teaching, even alongside managing chronic health conditions, and I’m more than happy to connect with you on my social media handles below: