Mental Health Blog: “Hi Mum. I’m under a table in school and I don’t think I can come back out”

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September 5, 2023

Our Education Lead, Daniel Sullivan shares his reflections and experiences around mental health and how this has informed our work in developing an e-learning platform.

My Mum worked as an office manager in Northumbria when I was at school in Sunderland, and in those 12 years she had some strange phone calls regarding my behaviour and mental health, but she still recalls how baffled she felt getting a call from her 17-year-old son one afternoon to let her know that he had locked himself in the loft and crawled under a desk.

She was so shocked because, as she still insists, there was no sign of any problem. I was always fine at home. School was where I struggled. I’d lived with anxiety all through primary school, but my grades never dipped so I was never identified as needing support. Much the same story had happened in secondary school, except that I got better at avoiding school altogether, and by the time I was 17 I was a master at avoidant behaviour. But by the time I got under that desk in the loft, I’d hit crisis point. Parent’s evening was looming, and no matter how many letters I intercepted, the school persisted in trying to contact my family. It was only a matter of time before my parents found out that I’d missed 85% of that year’s attendance. My anxiety had reached unsustainable levels. The paranoia that came with it was crushing. Over time I became convinced that the driver of every car that passed me as I walked home was staring at me. Then one day I noticed I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone outside of my own home. Within a few weeks I couldn’t be in a room with more than three people. Then one day, all of a sudden, the sound of footsteps became too much. So I went into the school loft, where I knew nobody would go. Then the windows became too much, so I had crawled under the desk.

This was the first time in my life that my mask slipped. And yet all the signs were there. My Mam felt terrible about it, but it wasn’t her fault. My teachers had seen much more concerning behaviour than I would have ever allowed my family to see. Looking back now, it is ironic that I had to crawl under a desk in order for my disorder to finally be noticed by them.

My message to teachers, and any adult with a child in their life, is this: what is that child going to have to do before you will notice? It is your responsibility to spot these signs, and they are there if you can see them. They appear way earlier than you might think, and it takes half a day of CPD to spot them. Can you afford not to take the opportunity? Can the anxious children in your care afford it?

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