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Why Tyson Fury has inspired me to share my mental health story

Steve Waters

Teach Well Alliance

5th December, 2018

On Sunday, 2nd December, in the early hours of the morning in Los Angeles, the boxer Tyson Fury from the UK met Deontay Wilder from the USA in a fight for the World Heavyweight title. The fight went the distance and was a draw. The controversial, eccentric and sometimes objectionable Tyson Fury took everyone by surprise with his technical skill and his ability to pick himself up off the canvas after twice being floored by knockout punches.

But you might not be a fan of boxing and may disagree with it as a sport. You would not be the only one to be disgusted by what Fury says and does. It isn’t the bout I want to focus on. It’s why Tyson Fury, despite his many faults, inspired me to share my mental health story publicly via this blog.

12 months ago, Tyson Fury was suffering from depression. He was grossly overweight, eating unhealthily, not exercising, using drugs and drinking heavily. In order to get fit for the bout, he overcame his depression, lost 10 stone, stopped taking drugs and drinking, and trained daily to get himself technically, mentally and physically fit to take on Wilder. Wilder’s record, prior to his contest with Fury, was extraordinary. 40 out of 40 wins, 38 within the distance, and 19 knockouts in the first round. Before his fight with Fury, Wilder had stopped every opponent he had faced.

After the fight, Fury, speaking into the camera, encouraged anyone suffering from mental illness to believe that they could overcome it and succeed. He was saying: if I can do what I have done, you can do what you need to do to overcome mental ill-health. His honesty and willingness to talk about his mental illness is as remarkable as his comeback.

You may have met me in person or on Twitter or LinkedIn. You might know that I founded the Teach Well Alliance in 2017 to work in partnership with schools who want to prioritise teachers’ mental health and wellbeing. You possibly know that I taught English for 30 years and was a Head of Department and Assistant Headteacher, before taking up a post with a School Improvement Service with a Local Authority. If you have been to one of my training courses or in-school CPD events, you will also know that I have run an educational consultancy business, Innovate English Ltd, since becoming self-employed in 2011.

What you will probably not know is that I have Bi-Polar Disorder. The main symptom of Bi-Polar Disorder is experiencing mood swings between depression and elation. This is not the normal ‘ups and downs’ of life but a mental illness which makes it very difficult or impossible to function.

My Bi-Polar Disorder – previously known as Manic-Depression - was only diagnosed in 2008 when I spent 3 months in hospital as a voluntary patient after a serious episode of depression in which I tried to end my life by taking an overdose. By then, I was in my early 50’s - I had started to suffer from anxiety and depression when I was in Year 9.

During my teaching career, I had similar periods of depression which incapacitated me and meant that I had to take several weeks off work. One of these depressive episodes also led to a voluntary hospital admission for 6 weeks, after my GP determined that I was a suicide risk.

What was being missed when I received medical treatment was that some periods of depression were followed by episodes of increased activity and energy, during which I needed only 3 hours of sleep and felt that I could do anything and be anyone. Teaching felt effortless. I was creative and imaginative. I never tired. I was full of ideas. Colours were brighter. The world was happier. Nothing was negative. I was prepared to talk to anyone – including strangers – about anything, if they were prepared to listen. While feeling ‘high’ was, to be honest, very motivational and sometimes inspiring, it was an illness and should have been identified and treated much earlier.

I know now that this was manic activity – the pendulum was swinging back in the opposite direction after being in the dark, desperate, exhausting, guilt-ridden, energy sapping, confidence-erasing negativity that is clinical depression. Equally destructive, the periods of mania led me to spend extravagantly and to indulge in risky behaviour – both common consequences of Bi-Polar Disorder.

As I was treated only for a diagnosis of depression until 2008, the medication also unfortunately increased the feelings of wellbeing which followed each depressive episode. One of the benefits of being in hospital for a second time in 2008 was that I was able to try different combinations of medication until I found one which worked for me.

In addition, while the environment of the ward was somewhat uninviting, the treatment I received in Salford Royal Hospital was excellent, including support from the Community Mental Health team when I gradually returned to life outside the ward. I was also supported every step of the way by the Local Authority where I was employed as a School Improvement Consultant. After 6 months, I gradually returned to work on a phased business, until I was able to manage full-time working. My consultant colleagues and the schools I supported were very welcoming, although I am sure that, at times, they didn't know whether I wanted to talk about what had happened. I found that if I introduced the topic, it gave them permission to ask questions. I was just pleased to hear, 'It's nice to have you back'.

Since 2008, I have been taking an anti-depressant, which counteracts depression, and a mood stabiliser which prevents the manic phase which follows depression in Bi-Polar Disorder. I have accepted that I have to take this medication for the rest of my life to remain well. A small price to pay for preventing a recurrence, especially as I experience only mild side-effects. Since then, I have had no further episodes of either depression or mania and I have continued to develop my career as a self-employed educational trainer, consultant and business owner.

It is difficult to know, looking back, how I was able to recover each time I had an episode of Bi-Polar Disorder and return to teaching English and Drama, which I loved. Perhaps it was the treatment I received. Perhaps it was the support of my department and senior staff, although this was variable, as the stigma surrounding mental ill-health was much more prevalent than it is today. Perhaps it was my underlying determination that my depression was not going to beat me. Perhaps it was the way that pupils asked me if I was OK and were glad to see me back as their usual teacher. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors.

It wasn’t my family – I hid my illness from them, as I didn’t want them to worry. Later - much later - I found out that my mum suffered from depression. As a child, it never occurred to me that my mum had a mental illness. She hid it very well. Looking back as an adult and knowing what I do now, the signs were there. It has been suggested that my illness may have a genetic origin.

Some years ago, I trained to be a Counsellor while I was teaching and have since become a Mental Health First Aider. I have used my own experience of mental ill-health and my psychological training many times while teaching and working with teachers in schools.

My illness was one of the reasons I created the Teach Well Alliance. My aim is to help schools to create a whole-school approach to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. No-one should feel that they can’t talk about being stressed, anxious or mentally unwell. No-one should be criticised for recognising that they can’t cope. It is not a failure. It is not a comment on someone’s competence, maturity or way of life. Mental ill-health is exactly that – an illness. Teachers need help, not condemnation or judgement. If a teacher is ill, they need to be helped medically and socially to become well. They do not want to be told that teaching has always been hard and, if they can’t hack it, they should leave. 

In some cases, recently qualified teachers make the decision that teaching is not for them. In other cases, more experienced teachers make the judgement that teaching is damaging their mental health and work-life balance and leave the profession. Sadly, such cases are increasing. These decisions are life-changing and should be made as objectively as possible, not at a time when teachers are broken and burnt out or because teachers are broken or burnt out.

I want schools to be places where talking, sharing and supporting is part of a staff wellbeing culture which permeates the whole organisation. Teachers cannot teach well or look after the wellbeing of their pupils if they themselves are unwell. Teachers need to look after their own mental health, but schools have a responsibility to give permission to teachers to do so. Schools that have implemented a staff wellbeing programme report improved motivation, better teaching, lower rates of absence, increased retention, lower supply and recruitment costs and better results. There is not only a moral imperative to look after our teachers – it greatly benefits the school as an organisation. You can find case studies of schools that have prioritised staff wellbeing and the positive outcomes at www.teachwellallianceresources.com

If our schools look after our teachers, they will be able to look after our children. And I aim to use my own experience of mental illness, combined with a lifetime in education, to enable them to do just that.

5th December, 2018.

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