Teaching: A Way Out of Depression?


A while back I wrote about how painful, intense, and guilt-bearing teaching with depression can be. I even indicated that teaching can, in a sad roundabout way, induce depression in some people. I wrote:

It’s a horrible catch-22: being a teacher you’re not allowed to be depressed, but the emotional output required by the job makes you more likely to be depressed.

A 'depression,' get it?

A 'depression,' get it?

Now I again find myself in the pitiable position of going through a phase of heavy depression while also having a regular teaching job I am obligated (and desperately want) to attend.

But that’s underselling both parts of the equation. For those of you who haven’t experienced real depression, it’s not like the blues. This kind of funk, no amount of ice cream or Lykke Li songs can cure. For the past few weeks I’ve found myself spending upwards of six hours of the day in bed, essentially unable to move or be productive. Some people might say, “Well, why don’t you just get up and start doing shit?” If only it was that easy. To those of you who have never felt this kind of depression, for the benefit of your sad friends, treat what they’re going through like any other physical ailment, such as a broken ankle or emphysema.

What I’m saying is, depression is a mighty force, and you simply cannot will it away.

And “obligation” and the word “want” do not begin to cover the charge I feel as a teacher. I know that bad teaching isn’t just a waste of a young person’s hour, it can damage their perception of a subject. I teach bad, and suddenly my kids hate reading and writing. That shit is real.

I also know that good teaching saves minds, saves lives, saves souls, can save this dirty ugly world, if enough of us teach well. That’s real too. So when I step into the classroom, I pretty much feel obligated to kick some pedagogical ass.

Which leads me to this certain Aha! moment. It’s what the Beats used to call a satori, and it goes like this:

Teaching is not an albatross or anathema to the depressed person. It’s actually a cure-all, a panacea.

See, what we’ve got in our classrooms is a good old-fashioned war. It’s a war of wills. It’s a war of spirits. It’s a culture war. As the generals say, it’s a battle for hearts and minds.

And if you believe in the cause of a war–and I know I do, and I think you do too–then damn you to hell if you’re not putting the cause before yourself. Once a person has found their raison de vivre, they are obligated to live it. To not would certainly appall the Christian, Muslim or Jewish Gods, and any secular ethicist will tell you the same.

To not save a life is to help end that life.

So I’m going to keep on fighting my depression, but through a bigger cause than just whether little old me wastes away his afternoons. Through teaching. At least at first. From there, who knows? Maybe I’ll learn a thing or two I can apply to the rest of my life.



Filed under Essays

15 responses to “Teaching: A Way Out of Depression?

  1. Shushu

    Dear Jesse ,
    Here is actually an email I wrote to my friend couple days ago,I put some of them here to share with you.

    “Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writer,maybe this can let you understand how I feel to my friends,parents and everyone surround me.

    ” After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell victim to a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War II, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work.

    On 28 March 1941, Woolf committed suicide. She put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, then walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. Woolf’s skeletonised body was not found until 18 April. Her husband buried her cremated remains under a tree in the garden of their house in Rodmell, Sussex.
    In her last note to her husband she wrote:
    “ I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I cant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V. “–From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    That perfectly tells how I feel to my friends,parents and everyone surround me….the whole time.
    I am there as well. For years.I totally understand how you feel.

    I quit my teaching job a while ago and do what the actually teaching way I always want and like to do now and yes,that’s is a way out of my depression. Look the depression in the different angle. Depression is no longer depression. It’s a gift and don’t fight with it;just be with it.I have been ‘fighting’ for it for years,it caused much more pain when I fight with it. These two days is the first time I am trying to be with it instead of fighting with it.I wanna see how depressed I can get into.I am actually feeling not as bad as I thought;facing the truth can actually set you free. Those kids I teach inspire and teach me more than I do for them.
    The Indigo, Crystal, Rainbow and Star Children.
    Have you heard of them?You might be one of them. Lucky you!!
    Check them out. You might feel happy that we are labeled on “depression” things. Being “sensitive”,or what people called “way too sensitive” makes us hard to fit into this world and that might cause the depression. But it actually make us special but not most people know it.We might not even notice it. Enjoy your depression now as I am doing right here and right now.I am happy to see another special one appears and tells the true feeling,you are just doing great,Jesse.I would like to write more. But I got to get something to eat since I am in bed forever as well. One thing is very interesting,even how depressed you are,you still have to eat or go to the bathroom. Think about that?! Not sure if you got the point.I would write more if you feel interested in.
    Just stay there,be depressed,something amazing is coming up or not….Who knows?!……just give it a shot. Because between fight with it and be with it; you have done the first one,why not trying the second one?!
    And yes,even you are a teacher,you of course have the right to be depressed and that would be the greatest thing you can get to know and give your students more. You have the right,everyone has the right to be unhappy,to be depressed. The most terrible things you have seen in your life and then you will experience the most wonderful things. Because we can feel much deeper fear,pain… and then we can feel much more love. It’s painful;it not easy to allowed
    by this society. It’s hard for other people to take and also it’s hard for us to accept the way other people look at us. I know all about that,been there and still there but I am happier. But you will see the beauty of it. Just accept yourself and be with your depression;well,you are not alone.I am here to be with mine ,too.

  2. Dear Jesse,
    I’ve recently resigned from full time teaching for a while to work on my health issues which include depression/anxiety. I battled to work full time, care for my own children and to look after myself so work had to take a back seat for a while. But I miss full-time teaching dreadfully because it was a situation where I was successful.
    I’m about to start relief teaching in a couple of weeks so I’m really hoping this will “fill the gap” for me.

  3. nick

    I am thrilled to know that I am not alone. I hate what teaching has become and I hate myself. I don’t know which is killing me; teaching or depression. I just want relief and a sense of well being. I feel like I work for Hitler and Stalin. We have an updated version of the Holocaust. It is in America instead of
    Germany and it is completely genocide on behalf of our educational leaders with the title of superintendent. There is no such thing as integrity anymore. That animal is now extinct. I wish this depression I’ve been suffering with was extinct instead. We are passing children to the next grade who can’t read because we are constantly threatened
    with the loss of our jobs which only adds to an already stressful teaching situation. I wished I could start a new career but, what would I do . I want to complete a play I started and eventually have a children’s theatre. I do not have the finance for this dream. I feel stuck . I love the children and I hate the politics of teaching. I am losing all my confidence and I don’t feel it coming back any time soon. I want to be a great teacher every year of my life.

  4. Julia

    I work with students 14yrs+ in the UK. I went into teaching thinking it was about making a difference.

    I love my students and the team I work with. That’s where the joy ends. The pressures and bureaucracy are immense and outweigh job satisfaction. My smile is my mask and it works whilst I’m at work. But the evenings and weekends are the worst as my life is literally all work and no pay. I am part-time hourly paid, which means job security and progression is extremely limited and, financially, I am not in a good place.

    My depression has certainly come back with a vengeance and I just don’t know where to turn. Perhaps I’m too sensitive for this teaching business…

    I wish all fellow teachers across the globe the very best and thank you for being such a supportive community.

  5. Ruth

    Hi All,
    I can relate to everyone’s postings. Jesse, there are days that the kids pull us out of our depression with their humor and youth. Nick, I can relate to you as well when I think of what our government has done, and will surely continue to do with public schools.
    I have taught for 22 years. Today, I cried nearly the entire 34 mile commute from my high school to home. Thanks to you all, I do not feel alone. I have to push myself each day because of what this art has become. The kids have also changed in the past 22 years and it’s harder to deal with the endless issues. I don’t feel supported…and who do you go to? No one understands —but another teacher.
    I will hang in, because, like you Nick, I need the money. My finances do not provide me the luxury of resigning. I try to hone in on the kids that DO appreciate me and go in and give it my all.
    Thanks for your honesty and this site for teachers. stay serene, and please know we are many, and there are many teachers who are depressed. Many are suffering, but know you are not alone, and maybe tomorrow will be a better day. Thanks a ton, and my best to you all!

  6. John

    I am also struggling with whether to resign my teaching job. I feel completely overwhelmed, and that I can’t keep up with the work load. I hate going in every day and feeling like I am not doing a good job.
    I am getting very little support, and there are so many silly requirements. I hardly sleep, and I am eating poorly. Don’t know what to do, because I also know it won’t be pretty not having a job!

  7. Julia

    I am so sorry you are all experiencing this. It is such a difficult and pivotal decision to make. I have had to leave two teaching jobs over the past 10 years simply because I couldn’t manage my job and my depression. I, too, felt badly let down by my employers. If I had a physical disability I am certain they would have responded very differently and more positively. I was even advised by the Occupational Therapist I saw that teaching is probably not the career for me. I was devastated but strangely relieved as the decision to leave had pretty much been made for me.

    You are all very sensitive, gentle souls. Don’t mistake your gentleness and sensitivity for weakness. You obviously are very caring and are eager to help others. You need to look after you, too. Without our health we can’t help others in that ways that we would like to. Have you considered a role that is still in education (where your strengths clearly are), such as Teaching Assistant? Your skills are valuable and you are priceless.

  8. etango

    It is a huge relief to read these posts. I am a supply teacher – I usually work on long-term contracts. Having done this for 6 years, I am truly burnt out. I feel upset in the morning, before I got to bad and Sunday night doesn’t bare thinking about. I desperately want to quit, but in this economy, it seems impossible. My partner knows and I think he is at the stage where he wants me to quit too. I can’t seem to admit it to anyone else – I feel so weak and useless. I feel like I have wasted everyone’s time including my own. I think I always knew deep down that this wasn’t for me. I can barely face getting out of bed in the morning because I feel so low – the thought of having to run around like a headless chicken who barely has time to go to the toilet just doesn’t appeal anymore. The holidays are a perk but by the time I get there I am fit for falling down.

  9. boganisation

    I have found this after leaving school before classes started, panic preventing me from stepping into my classroom. I have just started my 2nd year of teaching and this is the first time my depression has impacted my work. Teaching is highly exposing, which makes teaching with depression tough. But I know I am in the right career. I know that next week I will be pulling myself together of a morning and going to work, and doing a good job. I know that each time I suffer depression I am going to build new skills to recognise my depression and do something about it earlier and earlier.
    Reading the responses to this post have helped me see that all hope it not lost. I know that I will go back to class next week and be a great teacher again. Thanks.

    • Teacher

      I believe this is the correct approach and perspective. Also the books listed in several posts above are also worth reading.

  10. claudia

    Jesse, you are doing the right thing. You are a “real” teacher and your students need you. They will hardly find any other “teacher” willing to put aside her own feelings for their sake.
    You are inspiring and makes me feel I am doing the right thing (which I was doubting). Running away from our passion, will not help us feel better.

  11. Pingback: Teacher depressed | Greengovtv

  12. Ruth

    Ruth here again—what i have learned since my last post? Well, things have actually improved. My principal has come full circle with me, put his son in my class last year, and now appreciates me and treats me with more respect. It’s still hard, but instead of getting through each day, Im trying to put my energy into knowing something about each student. I found out one of my students got diagnosed with cancer last Friday. She has a totally screwed up family, they live in abject poverty and she is living with another student’s family, also poor, since her family took off to another state. She had a big smile on Friday, throughout the whole day. She’s seventeen, newly diagnosed with cancer, no money, no support–but had a great attitude; “I’ll take it as it comes, it’s going to be alright” she says. School is her refuge, her safe haven, her only solace. I am also a cancer survivor, so I shared my story with her and told her I admired her. I looked down to see that her shoes were full of holes. My heart broke on the inside, but I didnt show it to her. I asked her privately what size shoe she wore and told her that I would like to treat her to a new pair. She was very happy and tomorrow I will go buy the shoes to have on Monday for her, to give in private of course.
    It put things in perspective and I am trying to focus on the good. My entire career, 25 years this year, I have worked with impoverished kids who have nothing. Some kids dont attend school at all because they do not have clothing. Our school started a “clothes closet” due to the tremendous need. Where I work is like a big empty bowl with a leak in it, it never gets filled up. It reminds me of that quote, “To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person, you may be the world.”
    If you are depressed, as I still am from time to time, I hope my story makes you realize that to many, many kids, you really are their world. Many of them are living through times just as hard, often harder, than we are,, so hang in and know you are making a difference. Hope you all have a good year.

  13. Bill

    Most teachers I know are depressed at some level. Some know they are but the vast majority of teachers who are depressed have no clue. They deny there’s anything wrong and play mind games with themselves and others. HOWEVER, the education system is itself at fault and NOT the teachers. You’ve heard of sick buildings, well the educational system is a sick and dysfunctional environment that is full of crazy-making contradictions.

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