When I was 15 years old, I started refusing to go to school. At the time I couldn’t verbalise why, but I felt overwhelmed by anxiety just at the idea of walking through the school gates.
My mum and dad supported me through this, but looking back at it now I can see how frustrating and distressing it must have been for them as well as for me. This is our experience of school refusal.
It all changed in high school
I never had any issues during primary and middle school – I was an average student with no attendance issues. But at 15, just as I got to the end of Year 10, things seemed to change.
I wish I could figure out exactly what it was: I wasn’t being bullied (but I know that a lot of young people who go through school refusal do experience this), and nothing major or dramatic happened. But for some reason, I felt paralysed by the idea of going to school each morning.
Panic attacks in the car
At first, my mum forced me to go. I understand now why she did it, but at the time I was devastated. Each morning we would fight about it, and it caused lots of tension at home.
When we would pull up to the school’s drop-off zone and wait in the line of cars, I would sometimes go into a tailspin and have a panic attack in the car. Sometimes I wouldn’t even see it coming – I could be feeling okay, determined to give school a go, and then all of a sudden – boom! Panic attack.
Why I refused to go to school
I couldn’t figure out why this was happening to me, and it was just as frustrating for me as it was for my parents, my family and my teachers. Even my friends couldn’t understand, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t properly explain it to them – because I didn’t know the reason why, myself.
I think many people believe that young people who experience school refusal are just being stubborn or lazy. But I wasn’t – I wanted so desperately to be like everyone else, to be able to go to school every day with no issues.
Slowly, I began to feel more and more isolated. It was like a snowball effect: my depression and anxiety were becoming worse, and because I felt so hopeless, there seemed even less reason to go to school – what would the point be?
Plus I felt so ashamed, and scared at this point that I wouldn’t be able to catch up anyway, so I would stay home, and the shame and thoughts of failure would destroy my self-confidence and motivation. Then, because of my guilt and all these negative thoughts, I would feel too embarrassed to go to school.
The thing is, I had support from [my parents], but I still felt alone. And I don't necessarily know what else they could have done. But still, I felt so isolated.
Put that on repeat for months, and it built up to the point that I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody, I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t fix anything. And nobody could help me – not my school, not my friends, not even my mum. It’s a debilitating feeling.
Trying to cope
If I’m honest, I probably didn’t really cope well back then. I wish I’d had better coping strategies and the knowledge of mental health that I have now, but back then, I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
I did speak to a psychiatrist during those years, and I got a lot of support from my parents – and I’m very thankful for that.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have tried to get different types of support for my mental health. Perhaps a psychologist or counsellor with knowledge of school refusal could have helped teach me coping strategies and ways to practise self-care.
Talking with others and finding a solution
The thing that really helped me was when I slowly began to open up to my parents about how I was feeling. Even though at the time I didn’t have the right words or explanations for what was happening to me, just giving talking a go was a good start.
Conversations [with my parents] didn't always go perfectly. At that point in time, we still fought a lot. I'm really thankful that my family didn't give up [on me], though, because eventually, we did find a solution that worked.
After trialling lots of different management plans at school, talking to counsellors, and all sorts of other stuff, I looked up other schools. I found one that specialised in young people who experienced school refusal, had much smaller classes, and had teachers who were trained in managing school refusal and mental health conditions.
This made a world of difference to me. I wish more schools like this were around, because I watched friends – who had a variety of difficulties, broken homes, substance abuse issues, behavioural issues, etc. – get their Year 12 certificate. Never in a million years did we think we would be able to do that.
On the other side of the tunnel
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for school refusal, and it's something I think we need to study more. I believe school refusal comes from the anxiety that’s caused by the pressure we put on ourselves and that we receive from external sources. So if we can’t eliminate that, we need to at least have more understanding and support available in schools.
I may not have finished Year 12 in the traditional way, but the important thing is I did it. I’m so proud of myself, and so grateful to my family and friends for supporting me through the tough times.
So many young people are experiencing all sorts of difficulties that are contributing to high numbers of school refusal in Australia. Not all young people learn the same way, and if we want to support those who are struggling, something has to change.
What can I do now?
- If you're feeling anxious about going to school, you can learn more about how to cope and find support here.
- If you want to talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling, but finding it tricky, there are some tips here on how to do it.
- Read our article on how to manage your anxiety and stress.