‘Teaching brought me to a nervous breakdown – now I’m helping others’
On his wall, former Doncaster teacher Andy Hollinghurst has a series of paintings.
The first one is dark, both in the colours it uses and in the spooky appearance of the figures on the work. As you eye moves along the wall, the shades brighten into golden sunsets.
Andy now describes the wall as ‘art for recovery’.
And for the 57-year-old, from Cantley, they trace his path from the depths of depression after a nervous breakdown, to his current, relaxed state of mind.
Originally from Preston, Andy moved to Doncaster in the early 90s, setting up home in Stainforth for 10 years before moving to Cantley in 2003. He was a teacher, and arrived as the deputy headteacher st St Joseph’s and St Teresa’s Primary School in Woodlands in 1992.
In 1999, he took his first job as a headteacher, at a school in Thryburgh, in Rotherham.
But stress started to take its toll. He began to feel the pressures of league tables and public exams
He said: “I thought that we were making a wonderful achievement getting the children to where we were, but it was never good enough.
“I had a lot of illness within the staff, and I didn’t have a deputy. I hid it all from the staff, and they didn’t realise I was struggling.”
After five years, with the pressure building, he applied for another job, as an art teacher in a special school. He thought it would be an easier life.
He described it as a bad move. He lasted four days.
He remembers the day things snapped.
He said: “Everything seemed to much. I think I had a difficult group to work with and had three days working with challenging children who I was not used to.
“After the fourth day, I didn’t make it home. I went to Cantley park and rang my wife. I was in bits, and I didn’t want my children to see the state I was in.
“My wife took me to the GP at that point. She and my whole family have been absolutely fabulous throughout.
“I tried to get myself well enough to return to work, but that didn’t happen. After six months, I hadn’t recovered, and my contract was terminated in 2005.
“I painted a picture two days after my breakdown and that is on my art for recovery wall now.
“It was clear I wasn’t going to be able to return to work.”
Andy’s wife was still working full time, so there was still a family income. But their couple sold their home to move to a smaller house. Andy applied for ill health retirement, and after an appeal process, was given a pension.
He was given a diagnosis to depression and anxiety, and was advised to walk away from teaching. He was told he had been ill for at least five years, leading to the breakdown.
Experts told him it was not just the school pressures – he had issues which built up from childhood, when his father died when he was still a youngster.
Over the next five years, Andy’s health improved – and he become aware of a charity called Time to Change. They were looking for people with a history of mental health problems who were willing to talk about them. He volunteered, and was signed up by the organisation to attend conferences and speak of his experience of mental health problems.
“By that stage, I felt I was able to use what I had been through to show it with others, so that other people did not have to go through what I did,” said Andy. “While I was with Time to Change there was always someone to help if I was going through any trauma.
“After that, I was contacted by Mind, another mental health charity, and I became a voice of Mind, around the time of the general election in 2015. It gave me a chance to make a film about my experience. And it was after that that all the political parties all said they would put mental health on their manifestos.
“I had been working with Time to Change since 2008. It was exciting to feel that we had achieved something.
“I went on BBC Breakfast and was asked about the subject.”
Andy continued to meet counsellors, and made another film, for Mental Health First Aid, in which both Andy and his wife talked about his illness and how it affected them. That was the first time Andy realised how difficult a time it had been for his wife.
Throughout this time, he continued to paint.
He took part in an exhibition when the local artist Chinwe Russell staged one for emerging artists last year. On the back of that, he applied to take part in a project which brought artists in residence to the Corn Exchange at Doncaster Market. He is still there, showing his paintings. He has sold some, and says he breaks even rather than making money out of the work.
He added: “I put up paintings showing my recovery journey, and it sometimes works now to start discussions about mental health. I think its particularly good for men who don’t open up about things like that.
“I've got to know a lot of the stall holders and I hope what I’m doing can help being people into the Corn Exchange, so they can see some of the wonderful stalls here.”