Aurora portrait

A guest blog by Aurora Reid.

It’s time I wrote about my own mental health…. Actually, I started this blog in December so it’s really time I did. I wrote those first words at the end of a dark rainy term in London and I finish it in sunny June in a very different emotional state. I have made choices, to move on from settings and roles that don’t serve me and prioritise my own wellbeing. Nonetheless, the same question is still permeating. How do I express my own vulnerability as a leader, whilst keeping myself and others safe? How do I talk about my mental health in a way that frees others and doesn’t set unrealistic standards but doesn’t get me labelled as weak, lacking resilience or ineffective in some way?

Having taken a year out to prioritise my physical and mental health, 6am rainy starts out of Waterloo station and days of running (again) from meetings to class to duties to paperwork to conversations with families or training for staff and then home again (in the dark) came as a real shock. My alarm system flares up. Sometimes I can’t sleep, sometimes I can’t get up, sometimes I can’t stop thinking, sometimes I can’t stop crying, sometimes I don’t have any motivation to do anything at all except look and my phone and eat junk. There’s plenty of labels you could put on me and yes, I definitely need support in these low moments but ultimately it’s not my system that’s broken. I am having a perfectly health response to a dysfunctional education system and world.

It feels as though staff and students are more dysregulated than ever. School refusal, teacher attrition and mental health rates are through the roof. The response? More pressure, both from below and above. Everyone seems stretched to breaking point. This affects me, no matter how much meditation I do or books I write on the subject, I am first and foremost human. The research on interpersonal resonance and coregulation confirms what I know instinctively. That is, if I am in an unhealthy environment, I will feel ill.

Before I would’ve masked it, “put a brave face on” to “stay professional” but having written a book positing a mindful approach leadership, that recognises our limits as leaders, I feel a duty to talk about it. With my teams and more publicly. How else are we going to destigmatise mental ill health? How will we be able to recognise our ups and down as normal or feel permission to ask for help when we need it, if it’s not modelled? If people don’t first tread the path for us?

But as a leader it is really freaking scary. We are supposed to be the container, to have broad shoulders, to be able to hold people and so if we signal to the teams that we lead that we are not okay won’t they feel deeply unsafe themselves? Perhaps. It depends on the culture you have in your organisation. There are plenty of environments where it’s not completely safe to be vulnerable (in fact the internet where this blog is going not least). Nonetheless, it will take people speaking out to change those cultures. In fact, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, that’s the only thing that ever will.

Yes, some bosses will see you as weak and yes, some insecure members of the team may feel at sea if you are not completely solid, one hundred percent of the time. However, if you don’t make space for yourself now it will be a hell of a lot worse later down the line. What is more, for most, demystifying yourself as a leader actually makes you more approachable and the path to leadership look more attainable (because people see that you are not superhuman). Perhaps, most of all though, by modelling self-knowledge and self-care you make space for others to do so for themselves. In time hopefully this will lead to the kind of culture change that means that not so many people will need to break in the first place. If we were to start from a place of true inclusion, one in which we prioritise making our schools emotionally healthy places where everyone (including staff, including leaders) can break a little when they need too, then no one will ever have to truly break.