Anxiety & Attendance
An interview with a supportive parent of a brave young person:
- When did your daughter’s struggles begin?
Between the ages of five and ten H had a lot of health issues -nothing major, but within five years she had six operations. When she was 10, I noticed that whenever she was ill she’d panic that it was serious, that she’d end up in hospital, need an operation etc. I’d reassure her but she seemed to crave seeing a medical professional. I didn’t take her, choosing instead to keep things low key and reassure her that she was ok.
When she was 10 she had her first panic attack, in class. They had been learning about the link between smoking and lung cancer and H found she couldn’t breathe. She thought she was going to faint. The teacher asked what I wanted to do about it & I suggested they keep things low key, offer water, a break outside the classroom, etc. After the third panic attack (always in class) I took her to our GP. He said she wasn’t ill enough to be referred for treatment anywhere but a TA had recently completed a counselling course and would be happy to give counselling. H was happy to go along with this, as was I, as I knew and trusted this TA.
- How did she manage with the transition to Secondary School?
When H started secondary school. I made them aware of her anxiety and asked that I be kept informed of panic attacks, for school to treat her in the same way as her primary school had. During year 8 H’s anxiety got worse. She would often get bad stomach aches and not be able to attend school. She refused to eat in school. Her lunch box would be brought home still full. I paid for school dinners but she never used her payment card on anything but a drink. I went back to our GP who referred her to CAMHS. However CAMHS wrote back saying she wasn’t ill enough for them to see her.
- How supportive was her school about her attendance difficulties?
I was invited in to school to discuss H’s attendance with the year head and attendance officer, which was around 90% at the time. I went through all of H’s anxiety, panic attacks, stomach aches, feeling sick. School appeared to be sympathetic but said they hadn’t seen any evidence of anxiety. I asked about her panic attacks – nothing had been documented. I asked about evidence from her counselling at her previous school & they said nothing had been included in her records. I was gobsmacked. I pointed out she did not eat in school and they said they had lots of kids who did not like eating in front of others.
I explained that our GP had diagnosed her with anxiety but school said it didn’t count as a diagnosis had to come from CAMHS. I showed them the CAMHS letter which stated they had no doubt she had anxiety, but they did not consider her ill enough for them to get involved. School basically said this showed she was well enough to attend school. They said if her attendance dropped below 90% they would only allow 10 sessions of non-attendance and then I would get fined. They said they expected me to prove illness when she was away, by showing a doctor’s appointment card. I explained that H’s anxiety would spike further by going to the doctor’s for every stomach ache, but although they appeared to be sympathetic, the reply was along the lines of ‘tough’, as this is what the Academy trust expected. At the end of the meeting I was asked to sign a form, which they said was basically minutes of the meeting. However, reading through the small print, there was an area that stated that if I did not adhere to the rules of proving she was ill I would accept I would get fined! I refused to sign the form.
- Did having a diagnosis help?
I took H back to the doctor about her stomach aches, as they were now becoming worse. He prescribed medication for her to take when it got bad. I mentioned about school and he said if things had broken down that much it might be time to move schools. This was not something I wanted to consider at this stage, as I felt H would not cope. A couple of months on H was rolling around in agony one evening and I called an ambulance. The paramedic ruled out appendicitis and other conditions and said in his opinion she had IBS. The next day I took her back to our GP, who went along with this diagnosis. She was prescribed further medication. On her return to school I found they couldn’t do more for her – they provided her with a card so she could go to the toilet whenever she wanted, a ‘get out of class’ card when she was in pain, a ‘front of queue’ card for the dining hall (which was useless in that she still did not eat in school, but good in that her and her friends could get early entry and a choice of table!) I was pleased with how school were trying to accommodate her, but saddened that a GP’s diagnosis was good enough for a physical condition, but not a mental one.
The impact of being diagnosed with another physical condition caused her anxiety to flare even more. H’s panic attacks were coming thick and fast and towards the end of year 8/beginning of year 9 she was having up to 15 a week. All in school. Some teachers were fantastic, others would shout at her to get out of their lesson.
- What did you do when things deteriorated?
At the start of year 9 school realised H was not coping very well. They referred her for counselling to Kooth (a youth organisation). I could see her mental health was deteriorating H went downhill rapidly. She told me she had been self-harming for months and showed me cuts and scars on her hips, she was suicidal and tired of fighting. She told me she had deliberately thrown herself in front of a car. I took her back to our GP where she told him she had had enough of the panic attacks, she wanted to die. He questioned her further and she said she had contemplated suicide. He referred her once again to CAMHS. The next morning I phoned school and said she wouldn’t be in for a few days. I spoke to the attendance office who was not in the slightest bit sympathetic and warned that H was already well below the 90%. A couple of days later H was getting ready for school (she’d been sleeping in our bedroom as she was in such a state) and looked like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. I used to be a primary school teacher but now work part time for a local charity so I have lots of time on my hands & access to loads of resources (albeit primary but adaptable). I just thought – I’m sick of fighting for my poor vulnerable, scared little girl who needed something other than school and their draconian rules. I asked her if she wanted to stay home, to be home schooled until she was strong enough to return. The weight just lifted off of her. I wrote to the school there and then, de-registering her. I dropped the letter in at 9am and the feeling of relief was overwhelming.
I educated H at home for three months, until she was ready to return to school. For every lesson I possibly could I brought in the themes of stoicism, self esteem, self-reliance and confidence. Not just in PSHE lessons – English, history, geography etc etc. All focused on these themes. She had a total of three panic attacks during those three months. All symptoms of IBS totally disappeared.
- What do you think you have learned from this?
H returned to school in January. During her return to school meeting in December with one of the assistant principals he brought up her attendance record. I informed him she was on the waiting list for CAMHS (who had now agreed to see her but that there would be a long waiting list) and that I had heard from Kooth who school had referred her to, to say she was to start CBT counselling with them in the new year. He basically ignored all that and said that H’s attendance needed to improve. I said I was surprised they were putting pressure on already, given she had been removed from school due to her health conditions. He turned to H and said “your mother will be fined if your attendance doesn’t improve”. I replied that no H, I wouldn’t, I would remove her from school in a heartbeat if she was as much as threatened with her parents being fined.
I have learned not to trust anything school says. Don’t sign anything without reading it through first. I respect her teachers – having been one myself I understand the pressures on them. However, I do think some of them get a kick out of making a child squirm. Shouting at a child who is having a panic attack to get out of their class is never acceptable and I wonder how some of them sleep at night.
But there will always be the one teacher who comes up to your daughter mid-panic attack and says ‘I used to be like you when I was young, I was scared of everything, but then I realised I wanted to teach, to help other kids, kids like you. You’ll be fine, honestly’. Those teachers restore your faith in humanity (I emailed H’s head teacher and commended that wonderful teacher).
- How is H now?
So, to the present: H is coping really well with school. Her attendance is at 76.9% as they have included the few days off she had ill before I de-registered her, the week she had off with flu in January and her counselling with Kooth, which takes her away from school one afternoon a week. H is happy with her attendance. As she says, she is doing the best she can. She told her counsellor yesterday she feels she does not need counselling any more. Her panic attacks have subsided, the self-harm stopped when she opened up to me about it and she is no longer depressed. She says learning about resilience, about stoicism and self-reliance brought out something in her she hadn’t realised she possessed. She also realised she can count on me if things get really bad. She has gone back to school with so much confidence, she’s almost unrecognisable. I saw her form tutor last week who said it was like having a different girl in his class. She walked in with her head held high he said. She speaks up in class, she’s totally different. In fact she’s even had a detention. My scared, follow every rule to the letter, daughter has had a detention for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and what’s more, she didn’t care! She recently scored 1% in her chemistry test (we studied biology during home ed) and she wasn’t bothered. I am, the teacher in me is squirming! However, she is doing the best she can and that’s fantastic.
I don’t have a magic wand. I know mental illness can come and go just like that and H may well find the IBS will flare up again. The panic attacks may come back with a vengeance. But she also knows I have her back. That school isn’t the be all and end all. She knows she has a legal right to education and I will fight for her to get one that suits her. She is not averse to moving schools now, whereas before just the thought of it would spark an anxiety attack.
- Thank you to H and her Mum for sharing their story and helping us all to understand the impact of her anxieties on school attendance. She’s come such along way, and seems to be doing so well with her new found confidence and acceptance of herself.