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I didn't fail school, my school failed me.

Thursday, 29 July 2021 Josephine

Josephine blogs about how her school didn’t know how to support her when she had serious mental health problems.

For the past four years, July has been a strange time of year for me. Schools are breaking up for summer – some students are leaving for six weeks and others forever. It often dawns on me that I never really had that ‘leavers’ experience.

I am now 22 and have struggled from the age of 11 with my mental health which started to become unmanageable during my second year of secondary school. I had always been quite academic, taking part in countless extracurricular activities; from music club and violin to netball and hockey teams. I guess I was one of the ‘lucky ones’ – I had a plan, and everything seemed to be following it. But one thing that I have learned over the past 11 years, is that you can’t simply ignore depression or anxiety – it will make itself known, and you’ll have to confront it sooner or later. That is exactly what happened to me.

Throwing myself into schoolwork

I tried to ignore it, and threw myself into schoolwork, voluntary work, projects and anything that would help me to forget. And it worked to begin with, but it just wasn’t sustainable. I began to feel tired, overwhelmed and used self-harm and disordered eating habits as coping mechanisms. By the age of 13 it became apparent to my family that I was not OK. They were extremely concerned about my physical health too, as the coping mechanisms that I used to help me function in the short term; were damaging my body a bit more every day.

“Do I get to school on time but deal with a busy bus and panic attacks, or do I get in late?”

My GP referred me to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and I was put on a waiting list. As the months went by, I became more and more unwell. I would forget to do my homework, was overwhelmed by projects and regularly got to school late. Every day was a choice; do I get to school on time but deal with a busy bus, anxiety and panic attacks, or do I get in 30 minutes late and face the embarrassment of being singled out and put in detention… again. Sometimes I would pick neither option.

There were days where tears ran down my face as the crowds of boisterous students trying to make it to their next class became too much.

Admitted to hospital

When I finally saw CAMHS 11 months later, I was at a point where they couldn’t provide the help I needed. Being severely unwell and impulsive coupled with an attempt at taking my own life led me to experience the first of multiple admissions to hospital.

To my school, the decline in my health was rapid and a shock. But they didn’t see that my lateness, forgetfulness and absences had been symptoms of what I was contending with. Their disciplining of me was not only ineffective, it was actively making a bad situation worse. Upon reflection it was clear that they didn’t know how to properly support me.

During my time in hospital, school were required to send me work to complete, but I struggled to focus and engage. I often didn’t understand the topics and having textbooks with sticky notes indicating where I should read with nobody to explain what it meant was frustrating. My school admitted that I was ‘the first student in this situation’ that they were having to support and it felt like they didn’t know what they were doing.

After 11 months in hospital, the decision was made that I would re-take the year. I was still legally required to be in education, and I was too far behind to return with my friends. Many more hospital admissions followed but I managed to keep up with the work as best as I could, even with moving from one area of England to the next not knowing when I’d be well enough to come home.

“The inexperience of my school resulted in an incorrect submission of my test papers. I was distraught”

My final summer at school will be forever etched into my memory. As I wasn’t well enough to leave the ward, my dad went to collect my results. He brought them to my room; finally the anticipation was over, and I could open the envelope… G, X, X, X, X. What did that even mean? Frantically searching on the internet, I realised it meant nothing. I had no GCSEs.

It turned out that the inexperience of my school resulted in an incorrect submission of my test papers and supporting evidence. I was distraught. Something that I had worked so hard for resulted in nothing. Absolutely nothing. I will never forget the last words from a staff member at the final meeting to discuss what went wrong. I should ‘Face the facts. That no school or college would take you with your attendance record. Education just isn’t for you’. 

I now know that they were wrong. That education is for me; the issue was that they didn’t know how to support me. The problem was lack of knowledge not my lack of ability.

People may wonder why an inquiry into mental health in secondary schools is  necessary, but the fact is that there are so many other young people being failed due to their mental health. That is why I, along with some amazing other young people have and will continue to work with Mind to change that.

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Josephine isn't alone in her experiences of mental health support in school. Our new report reveals that it's a nationwide problem. Read more about the report's findings here.

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