‘HAPPINESS LESSONS’ IN SCHOOLS

I first realised that something wasn’t ‘quite right’ in terms of my emotional health when I was in my early teens.

Sure, like all teens my hormones were all over the place and combined with the fact that I was a frightfully sensitive young woman, it just meant that I was a sucker for punishment. Certainly, the hypersensitivity that I experienced was nothing new, but by the time I was around 14 years old I felt as though I had slipped down a rabbit hole.

As much as I had some wonderful friends, I didn’t feel as though I could confide in them about what I was experiencing. I suppose to some extent I believed that either everyone was going through the same thing or nobody was. But either way, I wasn’t prepared to find out, I felt far too insecure. My parents also had busy working lives and apart from over the dinner table we rarely sat down as a family ‘to talk,’ or if we did, it felt disjointed and false. So I certainly wasn’t going to bring up personal issues with them.

Back at school the only guidance we had about issues related to mental health linked to exam stress. An important area but I didn’t fully understand or couldn’t even yet articulate to a large extent my own thoughts about how I was feeling and why, but I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t solely down to exam stress.

I felt that there was and still is a level of stigma associated with simply taking the first step in asking for help. During my teens and even up until relatively recently as an adult, I felt that if I did speak out about what I was experiencing I was effectively branding myself as ‘different’, something that would surely cause me much embarrassment and even more anxiety.

So I read with interest recently that the government is planning on trialling ‘happiness lessons’ to eight-year-old children as part of the government’s wider support for mental health services. The lessons will utilise mindfulness techniques with the aim of helping students to “self-regulate their own behaviour.” It is a step in a good direction and especially trialling the scheme with younger students especially as it will hopefully instil them with tools that they can come back to when necessary. However, at the same time I am cautious, can you really ‘teach happiness?’

Right today everyone, we are going to be learning about happiness. Here are the lesson objectives…

  • Know what happiness is
  • Apply this to your own life
  • Evaluate your own levels of happiness

And that is what concerns me, in all subject areas, a student’s progress is measured by a predicted level/grade of some sort. This then allows a school to compare this data to other students and schools. I would hope, that if the trial is successful, it doesn’t result in a data crunching and comparison exercise where the original purpose of the research is lost. In one school where I previously worked, even in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), a curriculum that focuses on life skills such as careers advice, sex and drug education, and health and wellbeing, students were given termly assessments to check their progress.

I would also hope, that any scheme, this one and others with a similar ambition, focus on the breadth of emotions that we can experience. Yes, teaching happiness is all well and good, but even that has a range of emotions attached to it from ecstatic joy to a more sedate level of contentment. Although I have come to live with bouts of depression and varying degrees of anxiety, it has taken me years to accept and come to terms with these aspects of myself. But, if schemes like this can help young people recognise the emotions that they experience from an early age and it helps them articulate them then I am all for it.

BURNOUT OR DEPRESSION?

Melancholy, the darkness, the blue funk… just a small selection of the ways to describe depression but for me, the most appropriate is how Winston Churchill related depression to that of a black dog. Although he wasn’t the first person to describe the mental illness in this way, it is certainly something which I can relate to. Much like a dog, depression can be brought to heel and controlled. Other times you feel like it’s running rings around you.

I know when the dog has one up on me when I feel completely and utterly drained, almost devoid of energy. I feel like I am walking around in mud, and the harder I try to move the faster it holds. The most challenging aspect to grasp is that I genuinely don’t know how to feel, or how I should feel during these times – as I struggle to feel much.

Roughly five years ago, I went to see a doctor during one of my darker times. I had felt down before, sad even but I assumed that like all of our emotions they ebb and flow depending on our current situation, our experiences with those around us and our hormones. However, at this point in my life something felt different. The mud was thicker, the rings being run around me were created faster, and I simply kept falling over.

So I made the call and booked myself in.

My experience however wasn’t wholly positive; upon describing the reason for my visit the doctor asked me some standard questions about my recent medical history and emotional state and then recommended… doing more exercise.

Yes, exercise certainly can help. I know.

I enjoy exercising and it was something that I did quite a fair bit of at the time. Working in the field of psychology, I was already familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include prolonged periods (at least more than two weeks) of low mood, tearful, lacking motivation, change in appetite, lack of energy and sleeplessness (or conversely, sleeping a lot more). And I was also aware of the things that could help alleviate these symptoms such as exercise, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, taking up a hobby and so on.

I left the doctor’s practice feeling misunderstood and a little angry. Had I not explained myself sufficiently? Perhaps my symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be anything significant? Simply, I doubted that there was a problem in the first place and so I tried to put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with my life.

At the time I was coming out of an emotionally challenging relationship and with few other choices I had moved back into my parent’s house (in my late-20’s, not fun). Initially, it provided familiar comforts but at this point, I had turned inward and aside from going to work and seeing friends, I shut myself away and therefore I shut my parents out. My mother had always been fond of my ex (I truly believe that she thought we’d get married, live ‘happily ever after’ that sort of thing) and she couldn’t understand what had happened. She wanted to know more, demanded even at various stages. I knew her questions were only out of concern, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to retrace the steps in my mind to address my unhappiness.

At its worst, I broke down at work. Initially behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle and then it became larger and I was holding back tears whilst in the office. I knew at this point I needed to do something more. Doing more exercise wasn’t going to cut it.

I revisited the doctor (the same one in fact due to no-one else being available) and this time, he recommended speaking to a therapist. He provided me with a few numbers, but it transpired that all but one no longer practised in the area. The remaining one had a full client list for the foreseeable future. It could have been easy to retreat further at this point. However, something pushed me on and a Google search provided me with some contact details for another private practice in the city and I managed to get an introductory appointment for the following week.

In all, I attended only a handful of sessions with the therapist. Unfortunately, they ended due to the therapist moving to another area of the city. At the time I couldn’t afford the additional transport costs on a regular basis. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to continue to see her. She did more for me in those few months than she probably ever realised.

So why is now familiar to my experiences five years ago?

With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to pinpoint one of the main reasons for my current state and that it relates to a degree of burnout regarding work. I feel utterly uninspired by my job for a variety of reasons and have done for some time, although it was in a recent training session with colleagues (which coincidently focused on motivation and importantly understanding how to stay motivated) that was my wake-up call. So although the time and situations were very different, I was experiencing similar symptoms as to before.

However, unlike five years ago where I kept a large part of myself hidden away, this time I reached out and spoke to a couple of close friends to let them know what was going on. Their support was invaluable as has help from a local therapist whom I connected with through Facebook.

Like depression, burnout has some similar characteristics such as loss of appetite, anxiety, lacking energy, forgetfulness and so on. Researchers from the US and Switzerland led a piece of research to address the link between symptoms of depression and traits of burnout through a study on teachers. In short, the researchers found a pattern between the two, with women more likely than men to experience both*.

This doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Whether you are burnt out by your job, family commitments or money worries, for instance, the result is the same – you are not able to ‘function’ at a level you were at an earlier period. Therefore, some things have to give.

One of my first steps to regaining a better sense of myself was to get back into writing (i.e., spend more time doing it!) Writing is perhaps one thing that provides the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, where I am able to express and explore aspects of myself and my environment. Furthermore, the support that I have received since speaking out to close friends and a therapist have reminded me that I am not alone. Although both not panaceas in themselves, I am becoming more aware of what I ‘experience’ and so I can address the symptoms in a healthier way.

I am not in no way out of the woods yet, but I am now in the position of considering how to address my burnout and other symptoms. And I have also slowly accepted that the black dog may follow me around for the rest of my life. It’s how I deal with it that makes the difference.

* A greater proportion of women were surveyed 75%.

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