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Many parents are struggling with looking out for children with mental health issues. We spoke to one mum whose son has been refusing to go to school for months.
Sir Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, recently advised parents to send their anxious children to school because he said keeping them at home would make matters worse. It sounds straightforward, but for parents whose children suffer poor mental health the reality can be anything but.
Rachel Robins*’ son John is 11 and has ADHD, autism, opposition defiant disorder and anxiety. He has hardly been at school since January after his mental health deteriorated. He started to go downhill before Christmas when the support he was getting at school was withdrawn after he moved into year six. He became increasingly reluctant to go to school despite the fact that he likes learning, particularly geography. Then came the Christmas break. “That was it for him,” says Rachel. The prospect of Sats put more pressure on him and he couldn’t cope. “He shut down,” she says. The family have tried to encourage him back in. Friends, teachers and the school’s SENCO have all tried to talk him into returning to school. To no avail.
Rachel is on a Facebook group for school refusers – a growing phenomenon in the UK – and knows many parents are tearing their hair out trying to deal with the problem. Her son was allocated a secondary school place, but the school is worried it cannot meet his needs. She was only told in August that a special needs panel had met in April to discuss his case and decided that he was eligible for a place at a special needs school. The only problem is there are no places at the school – another huge problem for many parents. In the meantime, the family have been trying to get John a place in an online school, but because he has a place at the secondary school they can’t get funding for it.
The situation is causing Rachel huge stress and her own mental health has deteriorated. Rachel herself suffers from several conditions and is also bipolar, for which she takes medication. She works as a midday assistant at a school. Her husband works from home in the mornings in order to be with their son while she works, but Rachel says it can be difficult for him to focus because John “goes into spinning mode” due to his ADHD, running up and down the house.
Rachel, who has an older daughter who is just about to start university, would like to increase her hours, ideally to become a teaching assistant, but she cannot do so while John is at home. The family has had to cut back due to the cost of living crisis, although they were fortunate enough to have paid off their mortgage after saving money on travelling and going out during the pandemic. Rachel, from Hertfordshire, has cut back on the type of food she buys and no longer does a weekly shop. Instead she lives day to day and has also used vouchers to get by. She is paying off a debt of a few thousand pounds on her credit card through scheduled repayments.
Her son went back to school for three days a week in May, but Rachel had to go into hospital for septicaemia at the time. A few weeks after she got out her son stopped going to lessons again. Asked about Sir Chris Whitty’s comments, she said: “People think it is easy to get children into school. My son is very stubborn. He likes being on his own. If he had had the support he needed earlier I think we wouldn’t be in this position. It shouldn’t be such a battle.” Of the impact on her own health, she adds: “I have had to learn to relax. Otherwise the stress would be too much and I would end up neglecting myself. My mind has been completely consumed by trying to get John to school.”
*Not her real name.
**Read more on how parents are coping with young people’s mental health issues here.