December 20, 2011

I am subject to a gagging order. My employers thought it prudent to offer me a settlement and silence me by contract to ensure that I never utter a seditious line.

So here we go. I will tell you what I know.

For eight years I worked as a teacher. I was considered popular, if a little eccentric, with staff and students alike. Management had even described me as inspirational! I was involved in all aspects of the work from classroom teaching to organising school sports teams, overseas trips and excursions in the great outdoors.

I was fiercely loyal to the school and had excellent exam results year after year.

About a year ago, leading up to Christmas, my life took an unexpected turn.

I began to experience feelings of extreme grandeur and self obsession, I considered myself to be some sort of famous star. I would sing my lessons in a faux operatic tenor; describe poetic structure through the medium of dance and explain grammar with high flying roundhouse kicks. I spent thousands of pounds on vintage clothes and beauty products. Don’t ask! I thought my life was a film set and I was the main star.

However, there was a downside. The affect on my family was disastrous. I was married with two young children. It seemed to me at the time the children were hindering my creativity, my wife kept imploring me to spend more time with them. I could become cruel and short tempered. I shouted and lost control. My drinking got out of hand. Everything was falling apart but I couldn’t see it.

My wife insisted I seek help. I was signed off work with stress and depression and I went to stay with my parents. During recuperation I developed fibromyalgia, a reactive arthritis linked to anxiety and was pretty much bed-ridden for three months. When I began to feel stronger I returned to my family but the damage had been done and my wife wanted a divorce.

My psychiatrist diagnosed me Bipolar. I didn’t even know what it was: a sexually curious bear? So, Alcoholism, Arthritis, Bipolar/Cyclothymia. My journey through the medical alphabet had begun. In total I had had three months off work to recover. Before this time I had only had four days off in seven years.

When I returned to work I informed the head-teacher that I had been diagnosed bipolar. There was much squirming and gnashing of teeth but mostly there were words of understanding. I can totally understand that people still find the idea of talking about mental illness uncomfortable and that sometimes people feel avoidance is the best way of ‘dealing’ with the situation. This is why the Time to Change campaign is such an important vehicle to help people.

I began notice a tangible sense of quiet hostility towards me from the management team. An emerging strategy from their meetings was becoming clear: suddenly the pressure was piled on with several random observations of lessons a week, weekly spot checks on books and constant comments about whether I was fit enough for work.

Unfortunately the views and attitudes that drive this sort of behaviour are not uncommon. A poll carried out by Trajectory in 2010 revealed that “one in four companies believe people with mental health problems are less reliable than other employees.” A staggering result but, I guess, not surprising.

Then, one December day, without warning I was called to the Head teacher’s office. I was told that there were concerns with my marking and the school would like me to leave that day. That day?  For not marking? I asked if there was a more serious issue that I should be aware of, as this seemed a little draconian. He said that there had been a parental complaint. What had been the nature of the complaint? The parent had said that after looking through their child’s book, it had not been marked recently. Glory be! I am a monster.

Following an unimpressive Ofsted report, management had introduced a tough and simple party line for classroom teachers: all staff must be held accountable for their actions and any teacher struggling will be given structured support for a two month period. If no improvement is made, then proceedings will be put in place.

What happened to this structured support? What happened to basic human compassion? The only support I was given was a termination of employment three weeks before Christmas.

I was offered settlement money and had to agree to silence. I took it. I had no choice. I have children to support. Keep a roof over my head. The school community is close knit network and I would struggle to find work in the same area, so I guess I would have to move.

The shock of the situation caused two reactions in me. First I wished I had never disclosed my diagnosis and would never do so again. Then, conversely, that it is silence that nefarious employers can capitalise on: if people are too ashamed to stand up against injustice, this behaviour will continue.

I still am in a state of shock. It has all happened very recently. All I know is that this kind of discrimination really happens. Time to Change is a very important movement that is putting an end to this discrimination.

Find out more:

Research shows most workers ‘still afraid to disclose mental health problems’ >>

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