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Thursday 29th June 2017
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My school days are quite a way behind me now (I am 23 and left at 18), but what do I remember about being a mentally ill pupil?
Well I remember what it was like before and the stark contrast between that time and after I got "sick". I was a good student, rarely late, always conscientious. I cared so much about what my teachers and parents thought about me and felt absolutely crushed when I did something wrong. I was definitely verging on a perfectionist and was always prone to anxiety but I had a good group of friends, I managed and life was good.
And then the depression and anorexia got their grip on me around the age of 13-14 and exacerbated issues I had always had; OCD, Anxiety and insomnia; it became overwhelming and things began to spiral downwards at a rate of knots.
I remember sleeping through lessons and turning up to others looking and feeling like a zombie. I remember not eating, self harming in the school toilets and pulling my hair out in class and wearing long sleeves all year around. Going home at lunch to avoid people and becoming more withdrawn by the day.
And feeling alone.
I remember that the most. The isolation of it all, feeling like everyone else was going about their normal lives whilst I fell apart in the corner.
My school, when they found out, did what they could but what they did was not always helpful. I don't blame them though. They had no support and I imagine having such a good and supposedly "normal" student going so far off the rails was bewildering for them.
I'll start with what didn't work so we can end on a more positive note.
What didn't help was their panicking. At points they felt they couldn't cope with me so I wasn't allowed to come to school. This felt like a punishment and was damaging at a time when I needed to retain some semblance of normality; some kind of structure to my day and a chance to interact with other people and see my friends.
When I was allowed in school having an SEN assistant follow me around from class to class (not subtly either) to make sure I didn't abscond or do something to myself, and forcing me to spend all of my break and lunchtimes in the tiny SEN office made me feel like a freak. I couldn't pretend I was normal anymore. Everyone, pupils and teachers alike, knew that something wasn't right. All this did was make me even more painfully aware that I was "different".
We also never learnt anything about mental health or illness in school, it just wasn't a subject that was ever broached. It, of course, came up when I did A level Psychology but that was to be expected and it felt like too little too late and in the wrong context. We focused on specific mental illnesses and it would have been so helpful to have something much earlier in my school career about mental health and emotional wellbeing and something, anything, to reduce the stigma of mental ill health.
The only time mental health was raised was by classmates making jokes about "nutters" and "the men in white coats coming" - not exactly things that are going to produce an environment where it is seen as OK to talk or to turn around and say "actually I have mental health problems". As a result I only told a couple of people what I was going through and the rest was hidden away and bottled up. I told people I missed a lot of school because of physical health problems because it seemed more socially acceptable and said I had physio for some mysterious issues 1-3 times a week for two years instead of admitting I went to a CAMHS clinic for therapy.
In fact, with my local trust I recently went into a school to talk about my experiences and to dispel some myths about mental illness. I came out of it wishing there had been something similar at my school to make it feel a bit less wrong and bad to be ill and to make me feel a bit less alone in it all.
But it wasn't all bad. I was lucky in that my form tutor was an amazing man. He was seen as quite intimidating by a lot of people, ex-army turned PE and Maths teacher and I wouldn't have liked to get on the wrong side of him. But we clicked and when he found out about what I was going through he told me he had a long history of depression. And although he didn't have any kind of mental health training he understood and he took me under his wing and looked out for me. I am eternally grateful for the care and compassion he showed me. He didn't treat me differently or draw attention to what was going on but he was there and a friendly face in the crowd.
I think the most important thing for schools is not to panic - it doesn't help you and it certainly doesn't help us as young people, especially as we are often confused, scared and overwhelmed enough. Mental illness at school is common. I wasn't alone in what I was going through (hell the statistics say that 3 pupils in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem) but I was made to feel like I was. Since leaving school and becoming more open about what I've been through I've found that a lot of ex-schoolmates had similar issues and I just wish we had known and been able to talk about it and support each other at the time, I think it could have helped.