Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of depression.
For so many years, July felt like a surreal time of year.
After months of frantic studying, and then weeks of daunting exams, all of a sudden, it was just as Alice Cooper had foretold: school was out for summer.
Some of my peers would be on holiday and I might not see them for weeks. For a handful of others, I might never have seen them again - all of this wasn’t helped by the feeling that I missed out on having a traditional ‘leavers’ experience, as I never attended any sort of prom or ball.
Fast forward nearly half-a-dozen years, and I write this article at 23 years old.
I have suffered with mental health issues since I was about 14 years old, which is (at the time of writing this content) roughly a third of my life. That may not sound like much, especially for older readers, but just imagine you ordered a pizza only to find that 33% of it was mouldy and unenjoyable.
Reading blogs from other people who describe similarly negative experiences within school prompted me to write this post, describing why I can't look back at my education as much as I would like to. (Check out this article ‘School damaged my mental health’ by Joe via Mind)
My ‘Enviable’ Social Life
My mental health became truly unmanageable during the sixth form. My grandfather passed away and I felt unable to properly grieve, and like I had to bottle up and repress my feelings because of the societal expectations that ‘men don’t cry.’ Toxic masculinity aside, I also lacked a sense of belonging or identity amongst the various cliques.
Despite being well-known, and many people thinking I ‘exuded confidence,’ (their words, not mine) my whole persona was a façade, and I unfortunately never learned to ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’
I would hang out with various groups during free periods and breaks, but would very rarely be invited on nights out with them, or to any parties.
I couldn’t escape feeling anxious about why this was the case, and as my internalised paranoia grew, I began to believe with every fibre of my being that people didn’t want to be seen or associated with me.
My parents may not have appreciated me organising so many chaotic house parties while they were on holiday, but I don’t regret hosting them. In those fleeting moments, I felt the acceptance and appreciation that I had yearned for, but deep down, I knew that eventually, this would have to end.
What may be one of my greatest downfalls is that I always put other people above myself. From 2014 to 2016, I spent much of my free time taking part in countless extracurricular activities: taking part in Young Enterprise and Charity Committee, attending Air Cadets, volunteering as a teaching assistant, and having a part-time job in retail… Everything except making time for myself.
This prioritisation extended to my relationship: I constantly put my partner first: in hindsight, I recognise that I was telling myself that my feelings always come last. Maybe all the extra work was just part of a subconscious and misguided effort to simply distract myself from the depression, and being so selfless was a new coping mechanism to make me feel worthy of self-love.
Whatever it was, as the exams came closer, I felt an impending sense of dream and wished that I had shown the courage to confront my issues. Having thrown myself into so much, I was fighting a losing battle.
It simply was not sustainable for me to juggle so many responsibilities.
I constantly felt emotionally and physically tired, and things only got worse as I began to comfort eat as a means of making myself feel better. The more I ate, the more weight I put on, and the more hurtful comments I received about my appearance.
In the end, I surrendered to the old adage, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ My humour warped into pure self-deprecation, with my mentality that I would rather laugh with other people at my expense than be left out, which, typing it out right now, is disturbingly self-destructive.
As the months went by, everything got steadily worse. I found homework assignments overwhelming and it felt like I should just give up instead of continuing to fight a seemingly lost battle. If the question was whether to try practising self-care, or get an assignment in on time, my answer was neither.
My comprehension of many subjects was shot, and the classes couldn’t afford to slow down or wait for me, so they moved on while I was left behind struggling. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, but I didn’t know how to ask for help and I was too scared to put my hand up and admit that. I couldn’t work out what content I had missed. I couldn’t describe which topics I was unconfident in. How could I find the words to explain how lost I felt?
For all of my teachers, the rapid decline in my expected grades over only a few months was shocking. Many of those teachers didn’t realise that my shortcomings were symptomatic of what I was contending with, they only saw the class clown front that I was putting up as a deflection from my insecurities.
The school was required to set me homework to complete and content to revise, but I was already struggling to focus and engage so this backlog just grew into an unassailable mass.
Disciplinary treatment directed towards me wasn’t only ineffective, it was actively worsening my resolve.
I don’t necessarily blame them for not knowing how to properly support me, as ignorance about mental health was endemic in society at the time. I just wish events had transpired differently.
I know that I wasn’t the first student in a dire situation, yet the school counsellor at the time did little to help me believe that things could improve, she forgot my name, she double-booked a therapy session, and then told me that she, “Had to prioritise other people.”
I do realise she wasn’t saying that I wasn’t important, just that someone else may have been more at-risk. But try explaining that to an emotionally distressed 14-year-old. It damaged my trust in adults and made me unwilling to open up about my issues for years, to the point where I was reluctant to seek help during my apprenticeship at an entirely different college.
School is such a staggeringly critical experience in shaping who youths may become. It is the metaphorical dock from which we lose ourselves into the daunting sea of life. We absolutely need to ensure that students are not let down during this developmental stage.
I couldn’t escape thoughts of my experiences at school throughout the following chapters of my life. Almost a decade later, I believe that many of my present anxieties stemmed from my time in school. Don’t we owe it to future generations that they don’t face the same hardships?
My school didn’t know how to support me when I was suffering with serious mental health problems.
Trapped in a Cycle?
After receiving highly disappointing grades at the end of the sixth form, I was pressured into re-taking the year. Instead of changing my subject choices to Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) where I could have worked to my skillsets far better, it was decided that I would go another round against the very same subjects that I struggled with.
If we use boxing as an analogy, then I ended up ‘going the distance.’ However, this does not mean that I wasn’t metaphorically pummeled within an inch of my life. To paraphrase an infamous quote, "Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same thing, over and over again, expecting [results] to change." - Vaas Montenegro.
For the longest time, I felt like education wasn’t right for me. Unlike the majority of people my age being funneled into university, I went against the grain and applied for apprenticeships.
As a new chapter of my life began, I ended up getting a job as a craft apprentice at the Airbus Group factory in North Wales; despite many hurdles, including a traumatic break-up with my partner, I pulled through and I scored a DDM grade in my college course.
Not only was this a highly gratifying experience, but it proved to me that no matter what anyone else thinks, I could achieve great things if I had the right support network and believed in myself. Therein lies the issue. What I struggled with was a lack of support, not my lack of ability.
I firmly believe that an inquiry into mental health in schools is necessary because young people should not be let down during some of the most important years of development in their lives.
Voices of Hope wants you to know that you do not have to do this alone. Click here to ‘find help’ - it’s not weak to speak!