All schools ever said about me came in the form of whatever was written in my yearly report. I did well. My reports were good. Teachers liked me because I was bright and polite. They called me ‘quiet’ and ‘conscientious’.
However, my ‘brightness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ didn’t endear me to the rest of the children and being the teacher’s ‘pet’ singled me out as a target. I was different to most of the other kids I neither condoned nor condemned their behaviour in their hearing but by not joining in I earned their wrath. I was scared every day of my school life, at primary school and secondary school, in term time or out: scared of abuse, either physical or verbal, and scared of being mocked and humiliated. I was ostracized at times and tormented at others. This was always going to impact on me both then and in the future.
I was rarely involved in fights because I could run fast and I could make myself scarce at the right moments. I slipped in and out of school through a hedge and managed to avoid being kicked and punched on most days. There were exceptions but nothing was ever done about them. In a way it was for the best because those kids would have hated and persecuted me even more if they had been punished for attacking me. My trials slipped under the radar.
And so, I was just ‘quiet’.
As I excelled in sports (I was virtually always captain of both cricket and football teams in primary and secondary school) along with the academic side of school life teachers must have thought that I was coping with school life better than anyone. Unfortunately, the more they praised me and promoted me the more I was hated, and the more I achieved the more scared I became.
I lost my grandfather (I idolised and loved him more than my own father) when I was ten: he committed suicide on Christmas day. Now I can sympathise with what he must have been going through but I’ll never be able talk to him about it, I’ll never be able to try and help. It gave me a deep wound that has hurt for over thirty years.
My problems only seemed to get worse at secondary school. It was an achingly sad time. In fact it would be fair to say that I spent most of my days in desperate anxiety, dreading every school day and getting more and more nervous from the moment the Friday home time bell went to the moment Monday morning came and my next week of distress began.
The school bus was hell. Sometimes I was persecuted; spat upon; mercilessly and ceaselessly mocked for thirty minutes twice every day. It hurt to take it without fighting back. I kept my anger inside because of cowardice and a hatred of confrontation. My main battle was to keep from blubbering every day.
My mother asked me for permission to divorce my father. When I said yes I felt terrible. I’ll never forget watching him packing up his things in the back of a van and leaving, or the time I saw him crying and said nothing. I sided with my mother but it was still heart-breaking.
I came to live with my father because one of us children had to go with him rather than leaving him totally alone. It meant that I avoided the bus as he had moved into town. Unfortunately we had never got along, I had always lived in fear of his moods and hurt by his lack of praise for me and the atmosphere in the house quickly became poisonous.
During my A-levels my doctor first used the word ‘depression’. Nothing, however, was done about this and I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents. I was scared of it and didn’t want to be stigmatised.
I left school with good enough qualifications to go to university but also with a lifetime’s worth of issues.
Was it really a surprise that I began to develop stress-related problems, depression and social anxiety? It is not a cliché to look back at these formative years and see problems in later life. There is a reason for psychiatrist’s being interested in our childhoods.
Child and young adult psychology should be made more available than it is now. If it’s not, parents and teachers at last need to be talking about mental health.
I was lonely and isolated and I was being picked on. That’s not just ‘kids being kids’. Teachers should pick up on this and have a conversation.
School time is an intense social experience for children exploring relationships for the first time: relationships with each other, with their teachers, their parents and the wider world. Those children who seem to have trouble with these relationships need to be looked after and monitored.
Is there training and funding for specialist staff in the field of child mental health? Do teachers know enough about what is happening to their pupils at home? What should they know and how should they find out? Do parents know enough about what is happening to their children at school? Does the government care about any of this?
The signs that I was having difficulties were that I had few friends; I was unusually quiet and I was moody; I wanted to run away from home and I was extremely sensitive; I never felt rested after sleep and so I felt tired and weary at school; I was always sad. If they had talked to me they would have picked up on a lack of self-esteem and problems at home.
There are no ‘loners’ in the school system that should be ignored. They need to be dealt with sensitively. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone during my time at school, someone I felt that I could trust, I would have admitted that I faced serious challenges. The long and short of it is that parents and teachers need to understand how important mental health is for kids. They need to see the signs and know where to go to get help.
Every class or year group should have access to someone they can talk to. It’s so important.
I suppose, as with most things, it comes down to money. If the government is serious about targeting mental health it needs to give schools sufficient funding. If we get it right early on we may see the benefit later. The state has had to fund care for me: maybe it could have saved itself from this burden if I had help earlier on in my life.
Every school day I make sure that I talk to my son about how he felt during the day. I give him the vocabulary to be able to answer that question; when he was younger it used to be: was your day ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ or ‘really bad’? Sometimes we would say was it a ‘normal’ day or an ‘abnormal’ one (he liked this because he was learning about similar structures in grammar)? I always ask him if he played with the other children and if there were any tears. How is he getting on with his teacher? Is there anything worrying him? Does he want to talk to me about anything?
I try to get him to open up and tell me everything. I would thoroughly recommend this approach to all parents. One thing we know for sure about mental health is that talking works.