Tuesday 22nd August 2017

What's New

NEWS: The AcSEED Newsletter

11th July 2017

Read The AcSEED Newsletter for July 2017.

NEWS: Farnborough gets AcSEED Award

24th July 2016

Congratulations to The Sixth Form College Farnborough in Hampshire ...

NEWS: Beacon PRU gets AcSEED Award

25th March 2016

Congratulations to The Beacon PRU in Redditch, Worcestershire ...

NEWS: Lordswood get AcSEED Award

25th March 2016

Congratulations to Lordswood Girls' School in Harborne, Birmingham ...

NEWS: Cedars Upper get AcSEED Award

25th March 2016

Congratulations to Cedars Upper School in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire ...

Sara's Story

It is instilled within me, and I have always believed that education is vitally important - to learn and to question, to be informed, and to know about the world. In addition to this I believe that schooling, and the school setting, is a significant and really pivotal part of an individual's development - it's a time when young minds are moulded, when you are educated in real life skills, learn to develop healthy relationships, have structure and routine, and are fee to be inquisitive in the search for knowledge. Due to this, and because of my own experiences, I am fiercely passionate regarding the access to education and maintenance of education for all individuals, especially in circumstances when a young person is suffering from mental illness and may be unable to sustain normal schooling. I believe support, pastoral care, understanding and awareness is paramount for children, when experiencing mental ill heath as a school pupil.

What could the school have done to support you?

I suffered from an eating disorder for almost 8 years, from the age of 13 to 21. I stayed in school initially, when I first developed Anorexia, but then had to leave because I was too ill to continue to be there, and had to be hospitalized. I was chronically ill throughout my teenage years, and although I did return to school intermittently at the early stages of my illness, after this I predominantly lost connections with my school and all access to education.

I really loved my school, and attended the preparatory before going on to the grammar school - however when I first became ill, there was a real lack of insight and understanding to help and support me as a child suffering from a mental illness.

I think it was especially hard because my mental illness was Anorexia, and it seemed there was a lack awareness and understanding regarding the reality and legitimacy of eating disorders. Also, although my teachers and friends at school picked up on the fact I was severely losing weight, the weight loss was all they focused upon.

Overall, it was a really difficult time because I think my school, my friends, other pupils AND I, didn't really know what was wrong or how to help. As a child, I didn't know what an eating disorder or Anorexia was, therefore I didn't know I was suffering from one, or what was going on - and I didn't know how or where to look for help, to try and figure out what was happening.

Eventually, when my school really did take note it was a crisis stance, and to say that they were concerned and that I really wasn't well enough to continue being there. This was really difficult for me as a kid, who was ill - as school was my safe haven and security, and I felt like I was being punished for something, but I didn't know or understand what.

As aforementioned, I loved my school and I don't attribute any blame in the way they handled my illness - I don't feel like they deliberately avoided providing support. I think at the time it was symptomatic of the lack of understanding and awareness of mental illness and eating disorders - so they were most likely as desperate to help as anyone else, but just didn't know enough, or how best to help and support me.

Initially, I received some tutoring through hospital schooling, but after a few months I was too sick to be able to undertake education and this never started up again. As such, I spent almost 5 years, from 13 to 18, where I couldn't attend school, and further didn't receive any form of support, education or curriculum teaching, or take any of the scheduled exams that I would have normally taken in that time.

Although I know now how ill I was, and that at times I was completely unable to undertake education and school work, I really wish that my school and teachers had maintained more of a relationship with me, and kept up the connection throughout my illness. In terms of helping to carry on my education, even just in part, for example by sending lesson plans or text books, and also in terms of helping me to feel less alienated from school life and the lives of my peers. I was a really active pupil and engaged in all aspects of school and extra-curricular life, therefore when I left school and lost these connections, I felt bereft and really at a loss.

When I was 18, I was still ill, however I was at an age where I decided that I wanted and really needed to fight to return to education. Having had no education for 5 years, not covering any curriculum and not doing any of the exams, which are prerequisites for progressing to AS & A-Level, it was a difficult challenge. I went to the grammar school I had attended, spoke to the head mistress and essentially pleaded and tried to convince the school to let me study and do my AS & A-Levels. It took a lot of talking in order to be heard, and I think they were concerned and not entirely on board, as I had missed out on so much no one really though it could work, or that it would be possible. But, I was determined to prove my academic capabilities and attested to the fact that I would work hard, teach myself the curriculum to the required level, and be able to undertake 6th year study ... so I was permitted to return to 6th form. It was a huge undertaking to cover the amount of material I had missed all by myself, and the course of those two years was a real struggle academically and personally, in addition to still being ill with Anorexia.

However, in this instance my school were really supportive and accommodated a lot for me and my continued ill health. There was a lot more support present and a lot more pastoral care, which I think was a reflection of improved/better understanding of eating disorders, also because they had learnt a lot throughout the duration of my illness, and potentially also the fact that I was now an older pupil. I had a much better outlet and support structure from my Head of Year, Drama teacher and the school nurse when I returned. In the end, during this period of returning education, my school were instrumental in accommodating my needs, supporting me, and further maintaining this throughout my exams so that I was able to participate in school life and obtain 3 A's at AS & A-Level despite my Anorexia worsening and me becoming more ill at exam time.

I would say that although they were extremely supportive then, it was more just an unmentioned agreement that they could be more flexible with school elements, and so I don't think my Anorexia was ever spoken about or mentioned directly. Although at the time, I never wished to acknowledge or address the fact I had an eating disorder, I now believe this is something that is important to confront, rather than leaving unspoken, or kept as something that is only spoken about behind closed doors. Because I think this stance only served to fuel the stigma and shame regarding my mental illness, by not fully standing up to face it, speak about it, or help me going through it.

How did you want staff and teachers to treat and support you?

I think when I first became ill and was at school, I would have wanted teachers to have been more sensitive to the situation and the illness I was sick with, but also to try and speak to me about it, so I didn't feel so alienated and alone with what I was going through. My health was never really spoken to me about directly or indirectly, rather I believe teachers were just having conversations with my parents, which just made me feel more out of control and confused about what was going on. I understand the situation must have been difficult, as I was a child - however, I was really struggling to come to terms with what was happening and what was wrong with me, and I feel that maybe if I had had the help and support to comprehend the situation and the fact I had Anorexia, then I may have been able to cope better. I think it would have also helped me understand the actions of my parents and the school, in deciding I was no longer fit to attend - as a child it seemed to me like this was punishment, especially when my connections with my school weren't maintained, and this only added to the negative feelings of self-worth that are symptomatic of an eating disorder.

When I returned to school at 18, the school were very supportive. However as aforementioned, my illness and Anorexia were not something that was ever spoken of. I think this was predominantly indicative of the illness, and myself, in that I didn't want to face it or speak about it to anyone, or really address the fact I was still ill. However, it may have helped to do so in that setting, in order to help me address my eating disorder, feel more supported going through it and with trying to eat in school, and feel I could be more part of normal school life. To be able to talk about it, or just check in about it with a support structure, may have also helped me better reconnect with my peers and not feel so isolated from them or feel I had to maintain being so secretive about my illness, after having been absent from schooling for so long.

How important is it for schools to raise awareness of mental illness and how can this be done?

I think it is very important - schooling is a pivotal and highly influential part of a person's life - what teachers and educators say, stand for, and edify can leave a lasting impression on an individual. When this is positive, it is a very powerful tool - as pupils often look up to their teachers, and trust what they say.

Therefore I believe it would be really significant for schools to raise awareness of mental illness, rather than shy away from the issues. There is maybe a hesitancy on behalf of schools, in order to protect pupils, however I think this mindset if employed, is inherently skewed - as shielding young people from information, and shying away from raising awareness, can mean individuals may be unaware of, ignorant to, and lack understanding regarding mental illness. Additionally, I believe lack of openness and education regarding mental illness, only serves to fuel and feed the shame surrounding psychological ill health.

It could be done through education and discussion in designated classes - and rather than just lecture the information, have guest speakers and individuals from organizations who can really be a powerful and resounding voice for mental illness. I believe that in educating children regarding mental illness, it is so important to stress that there is no blame and no shame, and to also reinforce how positive and helpful it can be to be open and honest about mental health issues, and to share your difficulties with people who can help if you are personally struggling.

Also, most schools have a charity committee, that supports and runs various charity events - by also supporting and running events to raise money for mental health charities, it gets pupils involved, instils the reality and legitimacy of mental ill-health as actual illness, and informs and educates pupils while actively demonstrating support.

What do you think a lesson on mental health should cover?

Reduce stigmatization and do not trivialize it - so mental illness may be treated and afforded the same care and understanding as any other illness, whether physical or psychological. It is difficult to specify and educate regarding all kinds of mental ill-health, however I believe there is a need to educate in relation to the diversity of mental illnesses, and how they can impact an individual - as absolutely anyone can suffer from psychological ill health.

It may be possible to initially focus on mental illnesses, which have a higher prevalence in children and adolescents. If it is possible to teach children about these mental illnesses, whilst in school, it may then be easier for them to be able to understand and be less ashamed if they, or someone they know, becomes ill with a mental illness. Additionally, if children are aware of mental ill health, then it may help to reduce the stigma, and alleviate difficulty in facing and comprehending mental illness, if they were to suffer as an adult.

Explaining, in part, the scientific basis behind mental illness - chemical brain imbalance, genetic predisposition, etc - so that mental illnesses may be seen as legitimate sickness, and not wrongfully perceived (For example: As a phase, or diet gone wrong, in the case of eating disorders).

Detail the signs to look out for with different mental illnesses and also how and what you can do to help someone who is suffering with a mental illness. Inform pupils about access to information and support (and what is available to them within school), if they are struggling with their mental health, whilst emphasizing that you never have to be alone, and that there are safe and confidential ways they can get help, within and out of school.

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