Why Is It So Hard To Simply Ask How Are You?

I wrote this five months ago when I was off work on long-term sick leave. It expresses my sadness about a common problem: people find it so hard to ask after you when you are mentally, rather than physically, sick.

I work in a fabulous school that is staffed by a dynamic, passionate and caring team of teachers. As well as having high academic aspirations for our students, we also focus a great deal on their emotional and social development. Teachers are extremely attentive to their students’ well-being and teach both PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) to help them develop their thinking and problem solving skills so that they can overcome any challenges life might throw at them. When we aren’t teaching, time is often spent listening, helping and supporting both students and one another…and then, when we are really stuck, we can always approach our lovely school nurse who has a cosy sofa and an endless supply of tissues.

My school rocks and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. I am also very fortunate that my daughters spent three years as students there, before moving on to the senior school. Not only have I therefore benefitted from this marvellous ethos as a teacher but also as a mum. It has enabled my daughters to grow into mature, empathetic and balanced young women who also know it’s OK to ask for support when needed.
I am currently absent from work as I continue my battle with depression. It’s incredibly hard to admit that I am not well enough to be there; and to know that it will be a while before I will be teaching full-time again. I miss my job, my colleagues, my students and the buzz I get from working in such a positive and thriving environment. But I really look forward to the day I will be back there amongst them all.
Yesterday, I had to see the company doctor and this involved going into school for half an hour. He was running late and I had to, rather nervously, hover in a corridor to wait for him. During the ten minutes I stood there, I saw seven of my colleagues. They all smiled at me. A number said how good it was to see me. One of them gave me a warm hug. Four of them stopped for a chat. I paused sympathetically as they searched for the right words to say. All four opted for the safe option: “So, how are your daughters getting on at Senior School?”
I had tears in my eyes by the time I went in to see the doctor. Before any polite pleasantries, I said to him straight away: “Why is it so hard for people to ask how are you? when the problem is mental health?” He smiled sympathetically as he shook my hand.
“Awareness of mental health is improving but we still have a long way to go,” he replied. “They are all worried about what to say.”
Well, what I’d like to say to my colleagues is this: it was lovely to see your smiles, great to be welcomed back and even better to be given a warm hug. If you could please just manage to ask after me, rather than only my daughters, it would help me feel that I haven’t failed, that my mental health problem isn’t something to be ashamed of and that I am still accepted amongst you. You see, on a good day, I know all of those things are true. But, on a bad day, I can’t do that by myself and the simple question How are you?would help me overcome that.
Oh, and by the way, if you fear that asking that question might lead to me breaking down in tears and giving you a thorough update about my rollercoaster journey, don’t worry. It won’t happen. I already do that to my therapist and my husband. When I come into school, I simply need to feel a part of that wonderful team that I so miss.

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