The Education System is Failing Mentally Ill and Disabled Students

December 20, 2019 at 12:05 pm

Content note: this article contains references to self-harm, suicide, depression and trauma.

“There’s not enough money.” This is the response we get when we question the poor quality of the mental health services in university. I wonder what the point in lying is when we see another brand-spanking-new building go up whilst Wellbeing sits in some cold, wrecked part of the campus that no one really knows how to get to.

Of course, I’m lucky to be in university at all. I’ve struggled with mental health issues from a young age which often interferes with my education. The lack of understanding and funding around mental illness has led to me, and thousands of other students, to miss out on receiving vital care through school, college and university. But it appears that the system doesn’t care, focusing on driving up grades and putting more pressure on students instead of helping them through adversity. Students who struggle with their mental health are being failed by the education system and it’s not fair. It needs a complete reform.


The Trauma of School

One major obstacle in receiving the right care is the lack of knowledge around the subject. A common misconception (especially back when I was in secondary school) is that conditions such as depression are just a momentary dip in emotions which you can easily “get over”. It’s rare that people outside of the profession actually treat it for what it is: an illness.

At the age of 14, my mental illnesses had just been loitering around a door in my mind. When I lost someone close to suicide, they were able to kick down that door with great force. At the time, this situation was new and scary. I tried to be open as possible about what I was experiencing; I was confused and didn’t want to feel this way. However, my cries for help went unnoticed and because of this, I started self-harming and isolating myself from my friends.

I was showing obvious signs of depression. Some of my friends at the time would even come up to me and say that I ‘seemed depressed’. I started restricting my food intake and losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time. This led to one staff member believing she had the right to single me out in front of my classmates and accuse me of being anorexic. Every day she would comment on my weight. One time, I was sat in her office because I was feeling unwell. She took this as another opportunity to ridicule my weight loss. After asking me if I had eaten breakfast (the answer was no), she opened up a biscuit tin and put it on my lap.

“You can’t leave here until you eat at least four biscuits,” she said.

I refused.

She took out four custard creams, placed them on the table next to me and said: “Eat these or you can’t leave.”

To this day, I have no idea if she truly believed if she was being helpful, but I promise you her actions were far from it.

Oh, and I didn’t eat the damn biscuits.


Passing Down the Torch

Instead of offering me exam help when I was constantly throwing up due to anxiety, I was told it was “probably just your period”. When I skipped school because I was feeling suicidal, I was put in after-school detention. They could have helped me. They could have pointed me in the right direction and educated both students and staff on mental health. Instead, students mocked those who were in so much turmoil that their only way to cope was to hurt themselves. “We don’t have a bullying problem,” the headteacher would say.

In the end, I didn’t even turn up to my last day of school or my school prom. I no longer cared, I wanted nothing more to do with the place. However, it wasn’t that easy because I had two younger siblings who were still at the school and they were put through hell too. They put my whole family through hell.

Due to my sister’s mental conditions, she struggled with school straight away and instead of helping her, they tried to prosecute my mum over my sister’s attendance. From day one, my mum told the school that my sister was likely to have a mental disability and they didn’t listen to her. Years later, professional diagnoses proved her right.

I sat through one of the many meetings they forced my mum to attend, and to describe them as brutal was an understatement. They made her feel like a terrible mother and forced her to punish my sister rather than getting to the bottom of what was actually wrong. They completely broke the relationship between my mum and sister and worsened both of their mental health. In the meeting I sat in, they made sure my mum wasn’t even a part of the conversation. She sat in silence as they ridiculed her parenting and discussed more ways to punish my sister for not turning up to school. Eventually, my mum snapped and said: “Hang on, aren’t I supposed to be the mother here?” I sat back in my chair, wide-eyed, as did my brother. We couldn’t hide our pride for our mother finally sticking up for herself. It encouraged us to finally give them a piece of our mind as well.

For years they continued to make my sister feel like she was a misbehaving child who deserved to be singled out. They made her feel the way they made me feel – completely alone and unheard. Eventually, after the advice from the NHS, my mum decided that enough was enough and pulled my sister out of school. It was the best thing she had ever done.

My sister started college at the age of 15 (which she’s still attending now) and overall, this institution has been a lot better at handling her mental health, as they were with mine. This seems to be something that people generally agree on: the mental health and wellbeing services get better as you progress higher in education. That being said, they’re far from perfect or even acceptable in most cases.


The Problem is in the System…

College seemed more focused on boosting attendance ratings and, as a system, they seemed to care little as to why some students weren’t turning up. Of course, it’s important to note that the government put a lot of pressure on these institutions, and colleges rely on attendance levels for their funding. In fact, since austerity measures have been put in place, the college I attended has lost 43% of their funding each year. It’s the wellbeing services that are hit the hardest due to these cuts, as well as the jobs of those who work within these services.

Another problem with the system is the lack of communication. Once a school’s legal obligation over a student is removed, they become even colder than before. It took me a year to find out that my school hadn’t even bothered telling my college about my issues. Unless you count them saying I was “a bit suicidal” which I don’t. It felt like college assumed that I was just lazy, and they made no effort to keep me in education after I told them I was dropping out in my first year. They had no idea how high my level of anxiety was. Just attempting to turn up to one class would trigger a panic attack.

Even with university, which I was expecting a more open and accepting atmosphere from, the attitude of “Oh just turn up, we all have problems”, lurks in the classrooms and lecture halls. This punishment, which is adapted in all levels of education, doesn’t help anyone and only builds up anxiety around coming back into lectures after a crisis. And even though the university receives over 9 grand a year from all their students, somehow their wellbeing services are still underfunded. It appears to be clear that they just want to tick boxes which is a shame because I have heard some universities in the country go out of their way to make sure their students feel supported. However, my university seems more interested in the walking pound signs they call students.

Either way, it’s clear to see that this problem is systematic and requires serious input from those in higher positions of power. The government need to stop cutting the budgets of schools and colleges because it’s the wellbeing services that get hit first, and the struggling students have to pay the price. If universities just want to tick boxes so they can focus their money elsewhere, then make the boxes harder to tick. There’s also a desperate need to educate both students and teachers on mental health and the effects it can have on education. Instead of lecturers or coursemates telling me that I just need to suck it up and turn up to class, it would be nice to have at least a little support and understanding. After weeks of not leaving your bed or not seeing anyone else other than medical professionals because of a crisis, the last thing you want is to return to a room full of judgemental huffs and puffs.


…Not with the Hard-Working Teachers

If you look beyond the structured system, you will find an army of staff and teachers who are willing to fight for you – such as my learning mentor in college who made me feel comfortable enough to burst into his office with bright red, mascara stained cheeks when he was just about to take another mouthful of his lunch. He put it down and allowed me to sit and talk through things. Or my tutor and co-tutor in school who fought against the head teacher for me after he put me in after-school detention and treated me as a delinquent. And my college tutor, who during my last week in college, made our group stand around in a circle and say one nice thing about each other. She called me brave.

So many teachers and staff have supported me throughout the years and there’s too many to name. But I have to mention my English lecturer from college who was so understanding of what I was going through and still pushed me to get an A in my coursework – something that I didn’t even believe I was capable of, but she did. After my last class with her, I stayed behind and thanked her for everything she had done for me. I couldn’t have done it without her support. As I left, someone else walked in and asked her why she was crying. Boy, was that fun to explain when I was late for my next class: “Sorry, I made my English lecturer cry.”

Even now in university, as much as I love to complain about it, I can’t deny that I’m incredibly lucky to have such wonderful lecturers. Just last week, I walked out of class because my anxiety was breaking down all my walls. My lecturer followed me, calmed me down and asked what he could do to make things easier for me. He made it clear that my wellbeing was more important and that I was more than welcome to go home.

It’s sometimes hard to believe but there are people out there who care. There are students, teachers and staff who want to make things fairer for all. Together, we are capable of changing things for the better.

The education system is failing those of us with mental illnesses and disabilities when we could be just as capable as any “healthy” student and can go just as far. Instead of building us up and pushing us to achieve our dreams, they’re pushing us aside and making us feel worthless. But it doesn’t have to be this way and we have the strength within us to fight this.


This blog was written by Charlotte Emily Shields. Charlotte is a Creative and Professional Writing student at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Charlotte runs her own blog on politics and mental health, which you can find here.

December 20, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Blog | No comment

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