Happiness over education...or vice versa?
When I was diagnosed with depression as a 14 year old, I refused to go into school. I had no idea what mental illness was and could never have imagined it could affect someone’s life so much. My dad emailed my Head of Year explaining the situation; that I was in a really bad place and found it very hard to deal with daily life; I was just crying and crying nonstop in my bedroom and couldn’t enjoy anything. He replied that I needed to be in school by law, so arranged a meeting the following day with my parents, the school nurse and myself. It felt like I was fighting a losing battle as I sat at that long boardroom table. I was sure that everyone around me was forcing me to be in an environment where I didn’t feel comfortable.
When my Head of Year asked how I felt about being in school, I replied that I couldn’t deal with the social side of it, and immediately broke down into an inconsolable eruption of tears. He told the nurse to take me downstairs whilst he continued to talk to my parents. I didn’t get on with her. I felt patronised and like she didn’t understand what it was I was going through.
The decision was made that I needed to be in school, but the next few weeks were absolute hell. I would wake up everyday with an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. I would cry whilst eating breakfast, I would cry during the whole 40 minute car journey and I would cry to the school nurse, whom I had to sit with for 30 minutes, before driving all the way home in floods of tears. This cycle was repeated every single day.
As the weeks progressed (and antidepressant medication kicked in), I would stay in school for longer periods of time, and gradually started attending one lesson which progressed slowly to becoming a full-time student again. Going to lessons motivated me, as I enjoyed learning, but it also meant spending less time with the nurse. I remember one day she told me to just ‘smile’. This frustrated me beyond words- it is just not an acceptable thing to say to someone who is struggling with severe depression.
When my friends and peers asked about my absence from lessons, I refused to talk about what I’d been through. I wasn’t happy with the way the school approached my struggle, but my academics were not faltered during this period, and I went on to achieve 9 A*’s and 2A’s at GCSE and had a successful and enjoyable next 2 years or so.
However, during the Christmas term of year 13, I found myself back in that dark place and was unsure where to go or who to turn to. I approached my biology teacher first of all and explained to him that I was struggling massively. He was someone I trusted and always got on with, he was incredibly supportive. He helped me to reduce my timetable to relieve some stress, and also offered an ear whenever I needed one. I ended up talking to him most break and lunch times. He would make me a cup of tea (a strong Yorkshire brew) and we’d just chat about how I was feeling. I’d cry a lot, but I never felt judged by him. I knew he had a lot of time for me and must’ve literally devoted hours and hours during the year just listening to me trying to make sense of what was going on in my head.
He helped to liaise with my Head of Sixth Form, CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health service), my parents and my form tutor, and he was often included in these important meetings, as everyone knew he was the person I trusted most. Despite not having any experience of dealing with a student with such severe mental health problems, he couldn’t have dealt with me in a more professional or supportive way. I was recommended by other staff to go and see the school nurse, who had changed her title to ‘Welfare Liason Manager’, but he respected that we didn’t get on, so didn’t force me to see her.
Having taken a lot of time out of school when I was at my lowest and at risk to myself, we decided that I would not take my A levels at the end of year 13, despite being predicted 3 A’s and expected to go to a top English University. I thought he’d stop supporting me, because I technically was no longer one of his students, and wasn’t taking any exams that year. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My biology teacher continued to stand by my side until I left school in the summer (and we still meet for a cup of tea now). He offered advice, he sat with me when I was crying and, most of all, he listened, when that is all I needed. I don’t think he will ever realise how much of a positive impact he had on me; I genuinely think his intervention saved my life.
My Head of Sixth Form reiterated to me countless times during the year that health and happiness comes before education every single time. I’d been a high-achiever for the whole of my school career, yet at the end of year 13, I left school with no A level certificates, and no place at University. The support I’d had from school during my two bouts of depression, was very different. As a 14-year-old, I was made to stay in school, and forced to speak to someone I didn’t get on with. When I was in sixth form, on the other hand, I got ongoing support and was able to take the time out that I needed.
I think so many teachers and employers need to take a leaf out of my biology teacher’s book, and be willing to treat students as people, and go above and beyond to support them to the absolute best of their ability. It can have a truly life-changing effect.
Maison de Choup Contributor
Maison de Choup recommends reading - The Unseen Battle