September 1, 2014

We need to keep people in schools by ensuring that mental health issues are discussed, not hidden away

“So, two A’s for English I see. Well, I hardly think you deserve them given your lack of attendance to my class.” That is what my English teacher said to me on GSCE results day. It all seems so long ago now but I will never forget how my teacher decided to shame me rather than praise me for my success.

School is a tough time for anyone even without throwing a little bit of ‘mental health’ into the mix. The time at secondary school was when my darkest, scariest and most difficult issues began to raise their ugly head and take control over my life. On antidepressants by age 13, and antipsychotics by age 15, I felt I was in a living nightmare.

Fellow students labelled me “freak”

I wouldn’t like to think how much time I missed from school as a whole; a day here and there, a handful of lessons throughout the day, maybe even a whole week at a time. I really loved to learn, I genuinely did; so why wasn’t I attending? Well, even when my depression wasn’t cementing me to my bedroom floor and I had the energy to go to school, I hardly felt welcomed. I did have a very small circle of friends that I let into my deepest secrets of depression, anxiety and psychosis, but even their friendship wasn’t enough to anchor me and keep me in school. It wasn’t long before people were noticing the marks on my arms, fellow students labelled me “freak” and most commonly “attention seeker”, whilst teachers mainly averted their eyes, almost embarrassed to say anything. Why would I want to go to a place where I felt punished for feeling something that was in fact incredibly real?

My school did nothing

I suppose now, as an adult, I can forgive the students that taunted me, called me names and found joy in my misery; they were young, easily influenced teens, probably going through their own problems. But I don’t think I can forgive my school. They failed me. My school was fully aware that I was under psychiatric care, as my psychotherapists liaised with them regularly. But my school did nothing. No support.

No care. My teachers were all aware, but they just seemed to ignore me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t after any kind of preferential treatment; but schools have a duty of care to safeguard their students, and while I was quickly spiralling out of control, they did nothing to stop that.

I missed out on big chunks of my education because of a lack of understanding about mental health

For example, even though I had, very uncomfortably, told my male PE teacher that I did not want to do PE due to the sports kit exposing my scars, I was forced to do it. So I began to stop attending that lesson. Lessons where teachers seemed to treat me as ‘just another moody teenager’ also became neglected lessons. Even English, a subject I truly adored, became poorly attended.

I missed out on big chunks of my education because of a lack of understanding about mental health. My fellow students did not understand, to them I was an ‘emo’, a ‘freak’, a ‘weirdo’ who cut herself for attention and hated life; to my teachers I seemed to be a pink elephant in the room, awkward and not to be discussed, I was obviously going through some stuff but I was just a teen, how bad could it really be?

I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones

I managed to scrape through my school years, get my GCSEs and make it to college where FINALLY the teachers actually listened to me, which is all I ever wanted from anyone. It saddens me to think that back then, when I did feel I could attend, on the good days, I would then be in school only to be shunned and feel guilty for turning up in the first place.

So where am I now? Well, I’m an English Teacher, defying the odds and breaking free of the stigma my young education placed on me. The time to end mental health stigma is now; we need to keep people in schools and colleges, by ensuring that mental health issues are understood and discussed, not hidden away. My story is one of many, but I got lucky, whilst others might not have such luck.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.