I am very fortunate that when I have been anxious it has been just that, being anxious – a big difference from suffering from anxiety. It is the same as the difference between being depressed and suffering from depression. This week I have seen 2 children, in totally different contexts, who are suffering from anxiety.
It is horrible to see children, under 10s, who have such difficulties. What is even more horrible is the reaction of adults around them, the lack of support for them and the effects upon their families.
These children are not trying to be awkward, they would love to walk into a classroom, sit down listen, not worry who is near them, not panic when there is a different teacher, not care if someone sees them hang their coat up. Sometimes they can get into the school but not into the classroom. Sometimes they can get out of the house but not through the school gates. Professionals saying, “Just tell them they are going,” is brilliant in theory but, even with an 8-year-old, sometimes impossible in practice.
These children are in such a state of anxiety, so hyper-vigilant, suffering so much with feeling out of control that they need to control everything, well really, anything to help calm themselves. They are in a constant state of fight/flight or freeze and this is what we see. They will kick or hit at those who approach them – often more so those who they love as they know they are loved even if their behaviour isn’t. They will run away – away from a classroom, away from the car, away from activities that they used to love. Some just freeze, their mouths saying, “Mum, I’ll go to school tomorrow, I really will,” at that point they really mean it but after a night of not sleeping due to the rising panic of tomorrow they can’t get out of bed, get dressed and leave the house – not won’t, they physically can’t.
This week we have had an incident with a child who has anxiety. I phoned the paediatrician, I asked about contacting CAMHS, it is, after all, a mental health issue in a child and Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services would seem appropriate to me. The answer – no – they aren’t seeing anyone new at the moment. I have previously made referrals to them, the first response – get the parents to do a parenting course. The parents of this child are on the waiting list; February is only 3 months away and the course is 12 weeks long, they have been waiting many months so they will have been waiting the best part of a year before CAMHS will consider their child. There is no guarantee that their child will meet the threshold and be allowed to join the waiting list. In some parts of the country, the waiting list for these services is about 2 years. That is a large part of a young child’s life to even be seen.
These children are not suffering from anxiety by choice. It is not an illness that is due to a previous life choice e.g. John may have lung cancer because he has smoked 60 a day for 60 years but little Johnny just has anxiety. John will see his doctor because of his symptoms and if cancer is suspected will be seen in a local hospital within 2 weeks but little Johnny will possibly have to wait 2 years. Is this what we want for our children? We know that mental health services for adults as well as children are extremely stretched. Facebook often pops up statistics showing that there are no mental health beds available in the country. It is tragic.
I don’t have any answers, I am not medically trained, children’s mental health was not even mentioned in my teacher training nearly 20 years ago. The “area of need” called Social, Emotional and Mental Health was mentioned in my SENCO course – but not what we could do. Experience suggests a few strategies that may work – come in at a different time, reduced timetable, some things that the child can have control over – is eating in the hall with everyone else essential if eating it in an office with no one looking means that food is eaten and there is a hope that the child can learn something in the afternoon? Professionals such as educational psychologists may suggest reduced timetables in order to reduce anxiety – but this means they are not at school and when attendance reaches a certain point the Educational Social Workers get involved and the parents are called in – they are stuck between a rock and a hard place whilst still watching a child they love suffer. Believe me, these parents would love their child to be happy and in school learning rather than being aggressive and frightened and at home.
Do I have solutions in my school? No. I can make adjustments, I can ask for advice, my experience may offer some suggestions as to what might help but I can’t alleviate the anxiety. We need to ensure that everyone, staff, students and the child with anxiety are safe. This can be very tricky. Is exclusion the answer? I don’t think so; it certainly isn’t a long-term solution but it certainly happens.
At present, I am at a bit of a loss but I will continue to work with these families, I will work with professionals, I will talk to the children themselves. I continue to hope that together we can make life a bit better for these children so that they can grow up into adults who can look back on a childhood that has some happy moments.
This article originally appeared here.