• Truth be told, our son always found school socially difficult. (Moment RF)Source: Moment RF
My days became weeks and then months of bringing breakfast to give him the energy to even begin to face the day, then hoping, wheedling, cajoling, haranguing, failing, despairing.
By
Rachel Valentine*

13 Aug 2020 - 9:26 AM  UPDATED 13 Aug 2020 - 11:54 AM

Our 16-year-old, Year 11 son hasn’t attended school in a meaningful way since the Covid lockdowns began. It’s a strange, suspended feeling when you realise that actually it’s not all going to come together, and it’s not all going to be alright.

He disappeared into an alternative reality of his own when classes stopped at the end of March. Teachers did their best, but the school's decision to switch to Google Classroom with its text-based communication and with the physical presence and encouragement of his wonderful teachers dropping off the face of the earth, the result was disastrous. Focus became impossible. Worksheets and online chat conversation failed to motivate him.

Already emotionally wobbly and feeling the pressure of entry into senior years, he retreated. He, along with many of his friends turned to gaming to while away the hours. A fresh start was always going to be tomorrow. And then when school finally returned to campus almost two months later, he was critically behind. Motivation was at an all-time low. It became easier to stay in bed.

Already emotionally wobbly and feeling the pressure of entry into senior years, he retreated.

As his parent though, I had to greet each day as if he were going to get up and go to school. My days became weeks and then months of bringing breakfast to give him the energy to even begin to face the day, then hoping, wheedling, cajoling, haranguing, failing, despairing. Every day the reminders would arrive: Your son is not at school today. Please reply to this text or send an email to explain why. 

At first, I diligently responded to the texts with brief personal stories of how the morning had been. “He’s too depressed. I’ve tried, perhaps he’ll come at 11.' Eventually it became: “Depression.” And then, I stopped bothering and instead started to feel resentment at the daily reminder of my failure, and my son's awful pain.

I knew he was hurting - the backlog of work was becoming a mountainous wave, and he was drowning.

I knew he was hurting - the backlog of work was becoming a mountainous wave, and he was drowning.

I did not see much public discussion about what was going on for our teens en masse. There was talk about increased anxiety and depression, but nothing that spoke to me of the paralysed reality of our days. In parenting Facebook groups I heard the stories though. Parents flailing in a vacuum, veering from disciplinarian and dragging their kids forcibly to school with all the ensuing family conflict, and panicked cries of, "What do I do next?" 

School refusal is a confounding behavioural issue in which, as the term implies, children from very young all the way to senior years experience acute emotional distress about going to school. It is not the same as truancy. Instead, having been triggered by a range of possible factors — bullying, separation anxiety, a bad teacher, trauma — they simply refuse to go. Once it starts it is hard to shift. Swift action and often ongoing intervention is required but school counsellors are usually only present three days a week. And external mental health services like Headspace is a crisis service only, not intensive support. The school may or may not have strategies to support you, but even the best public schools we've experienced don't have the resources to comprehensively do so. School refusal is often a protracted problem. So parents are left to manage it on their own, often crowdsourcing advice on social media. 

Truth be told, our son has always found school socially difficult. He didn’t understand the complexities of tribalism or why people misbehaved in class. He longed to belong but couldn’t cope with the cut and thrust of it. He could never quite find his place, though he did make friends, his primary experience was one of loneliness and confused rejection.

Truth be told, our son always found school socially difficult. He didn’t understand the complexities of tribalism or why people misbehaved in class.

Like many teenagers, and senior students in particular, his mental health was already vulnerable. And COVID brought that into sharp relief and tipped us from one side of the school refusal equation to the other.

Amidst the social chaos that has been COVID-19, I have not seen any kind of comprehensive strategy for getting our school refusers back on track. The particularly mentally vulnerable ones  and I know there are many  need, in my belief, intensive one-on-one emergency support.

We made a shift from private psychology into the public system at this time, and were between psychologists for over a month. The three of us at home 24/7, my husband and I watching with fear as our son bedded in poor sleep habits, utterly lost for what to do, and increasingly depressed as the days went by.

One particularly low day I called the SANE hotline and sobbed. Though the counsellor was wonderful and helped me find a way forward for the next day, we were adrift.

Eventually for us it became too late. All assignments had to be completed to fulfill the requirement to move onto Year 12. Term three loomed, and by then we knew. With about three assignments per subject it was never going to happen.

I started making calls. TAFE  which I had never considered before. An institution I thought was trade-based and because our son was considering engineering through university, was unlikely to be for him. And he rejected it too. Somewhere along the line, and it seems many of the kids have this sense, TAFE wasn’t for academic children. I wince as I write this, though I also remember the school counsellor who had quickly set me straight: TAFE is a solution for all sorts.

It took three long, anger-filled days for our son to accept his own dream of self-transformation wasn’t going to happen and TAFE was a potential way out. But I started to see it more clearly.

It took three long, anger-filled days for our son to accept his own dream of self-transformation wasn’t going to happen and TAFE was a potential way out. But I started to see it more clearly.

The TAFE counsellor who called me back assured me that kids like our son would in fact be very well supported. That there were counsellors on staff all the time, not just three days a week as in public schools. We had several conversations on email as well. I spoke to the head of school, and a teacher, and they were easily accessible. They talked to our son like an adult. We went through the confusing rigmarole of enrolling, signed up for mental health support  which gave us his study free of charge   and started.

It’s such early days. But already a teacher has proactively contacted us with the desire to mentor and support our son through the adult education environment, and I can hardly believe it. Our son is sitting at his computer doing online learning in a Zoom classroom environment and he hasn’t complained of being bored or depressed. He seems determined to complete his Cert III which will give him his HSC equivalent, a year ahead of time — allowing him to move into a Cert IV in 2021.

A Cert IV under his belt by mid-next year as his schoolmates are just starting the final exams would give him standing with universities, under alternate entry criteria, an ATAR equivalent of 70 to 75. Next, a year’s diploma should he wish, and a transfer straight into second year university. There are, in other words, options. When before there were none.

Our son is bravely setting out from the murky rock bottom of deep depression on a new course he wasn’t remotely expecting to take. But on the upside the whole family gets a get-out-of-jail free pass from the angst and struggle and horrific pressure of HSC World, and what a difference that makes to us all.


*Real name has not been used


Helplines:

SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org

Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au

RECOMMENDED
When anxiety and depression in new mothers could be Complex PTSD
Perinatal psychiatrist Professor Anne Buist writes about how CPTSD is often mistaken for perinatal depression or anxiety in new mothers.
What 'social distancing' looks like for people with depression
The problem is, so many of my usual self-care strategies aren't on the table now. Because we're being encouraged to self-isolate. Which, against the repeated recommendations of my psychologist, I was already doing.
This is what depression feels like for me
On 12th September I’ll be asking people R U OK? But then I’ll be doing it on 13th September too.
Why PMS can feel like depression
Women can be reassured their observations connecting hormones and moods are valid.