This guest post is by Katja P (she/her), a secondary MFL (modern foreign languages) teacher and mental health activist. In this post, Katja talks about how education needs to become more inclusive and accepting of teaching staff with BPD (borderline personality disorder) and other mental illnesses if young people are to have diverse role models.
'Since my BPD diagnosis, I’ve looked to ways of addressing the insidious ways discrimination and prejudice can permeate through the education sector. It would be easy to assume that schools and colleges are at the forefront of equality, but this sadly isn’t always the case.
Earlier this year I set up a campaign encouraging schools to become Disability Confident, a government initiative that aims to increase access to employment for disabled individuals. Some schools already guarantee interviews to disabled candidates but, following on from my media work, I was inundated with messages from teachers and teaching assistants with BPD who had been treated unfairly. From exceeding job description requirements yet being denied an interview due to declaring their diagnosis in their application, to being demoted or managed out after diagnosis, to having reasonable adjustments refused because BPD ‘isn’t a disability’, through to trainee teachers having job offers rescinded after time off for BPD related issues. It made for disturbing reading.
Shortly after my campaign launched, I received an anonymous email advising me to remove the campaign for ‘bringing the profession into disrepute’. I found it odd that anyone wouldn’t support a measure to widen participation and inclusion. At the time, the petition had fewer than ten signatures. Although part of me found it laughable that anyone would feel threatened by a petition with such a low number of signatures, it did indicate part of a wider problem. Fellow teachers confided they were reluctant to sign, despite supporting the campaign, “in case my school finds out.” Repeated efforts to contact my MP to discuss the matter were met with stony silence, and my union were initially reluctant to support me. The fact is, the campaign held a mirror up to societal attitudes towards the most stigmatised mental health conditions, and the reflection is still pretty damn ugly.
Mental health campaigns scream from billboards and magazine pages, encouraging us to be open about our mental health. Something I have learned since my diagnosis is that openness is generally only encouraged for certain mental illnesses. Openness is actively discouraged if you have a personality disorder, psychosis or a dissociative condition. Those labels invalidate everything else you may be. I may be a graduate studying for a masters who speaks six languages and is a committed and passionate teacher, but the moment ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ appears on my CV, this cancels out who I am, and I become what I have. So, why don’t I leave all mention of BPD off my CV if it’s so reductionist?
My response is simple- why should I? If people with serious mental health conditions are to have a voice, actually telling people I have a personality disorder is a good starting point. It allows me to request reasonable adjustments in order to ensure I can carry out my work commitments effectively. Many schools dissuade staff from discussing their mental health under the guise of ‘unprofessionalism’. But children need diverse role models, and people with BPD are often excellent teachers due to high levels of empathy and creativity. I don’t tell students about my BPD, but they have an uncanny ability to seek out teachers who understand what it’s like to struggle.
School leaders may shrug- well, it doesn’t apply to our school. It does. The incidence rate is estimated to be around one in 100 people. In reality, this is likely to be far higher. Factor in the following; borderlines are drawn to caring professions and are likely over-represented in education, clinicians are often reluctant to issue a formal diagnosis of BPD and prefer to treat it with medication, and most people with BPD have at some point been misdiagnosed.
There is a very real likelihood at least one member of staff in a school has BPD.
If an institution prides itself on its progressive stance on LGBTQ+ issues, racism and wellbeing, yet refuses to acknowledge serious mental illnesses, then it cannot stand for equality. Equality is not about cherry-picking which issues matter. If an institution is shouting loudly about having LGBTQ+ role models within its staff, or taking measures to widen opportunities for minority groups, yet is quietly binning CVs from suitable applicants who have disclosed a serious mental health condition, then it does not stand for equality. It stands for hypocrisy.'
- Katja P
A huge thank you Katja for this powerful and important guest post. As a fellow teacher, this post hits me right to the core—and I couldn't agree with you more fervently. As you express, there is still a long way to go until teachers with mental health conditions—particularly a stigmatised diagnosis like BPD—have equality. I appreciate the work you are doing to get this inequality noticed and push for a positive change in attitude and accommodations. Thank you so much for sharing this piece on Talking About BPD and thank you even more for pushing for the full inclusion of teachers with BPD. Please keep going if you can and I wish you all the best.
Links to Katja P's work:
Campaign/Petition: Encourage Schools To Become Disability Confident
Teacher Toolkit Podcast: Supporting Teachers with Borderline Personality Disorder
Times Education Supplement: ‘I’m a teacher with borderline personality disorder’
If there are any teachers or teaching staff reading this who want to write something for Talking About BPD, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can talk.