As we draw to the end of this years Children’s Mental Health Week, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own mental health as a child and how it has affected me now as an adult. Did you know that 1 in 5 children in the classroom will experience a mental health problem and many more will struggle with challenges such as bullying? Sadly, I do know this. Not because I’ve previously researched this information, but because I am one of those 1 in 5. They say your childhood years are the best years of your life, and for me I really do think some of them were. Until the year of 2000 when that all changed.
School for me started off great. I loved to learn just as much as I loved to make friends. As I progressed through Primary School, I always felt part of the crowd. I played Centre in Netball, took part in Cross Country running, played the violin (badly…sorry Mum and Dad!) and was always invited to every sleepover. And then it was time for Secondary School….a whole new ballgame. Year 7 started off the same way Primary School had ended…pretty good in all honesty. My friendship circle grew even bigger, the boys always wanted me to join in with ‘Spin the Bottle’ and I continued with my love for learning. The summer holidays soon came and went and I was looking forward to starting a brand new year.
I remember my first day of Year 8 clearly, as though it was only yesterday. I walked into the classroom and saw my group of friends sat at the back and so I excitedly went over to say hello. Most of them greeted me with matched enthusiasm, but 2 of them gave me the cold shoulder and walked off. I was confused. What had I done? The rest of the day continued with me being ignored by them and when I asked what was wrong, they laughed in my face and walked off with a flip of the hair. The following day things started to escalate. It quickly went from being ignored to being elbowed as I passed them in the hallway, hidden giggling as they sat behind me in class, cold stares if I caught their gaze. And this is how the weeks continued while I remained completely clueless as to what had changed over the summer. I slowly started to feel myself becoming more and more isolated. Our mutual friends felt stuck in the middle, while I felt betrayed that nobody stood up for me. I felt myself losing my spark. I had gone from loving to learn and making friends, to spending my lessons missing what the teacher was saying because I was too distracted by the whispers, feeling like I had to keep looking over my shoulder, intimidated by the stares and trying to just keep myself to myself to not give them any fuel for the bullying. This went on for months until one day, it all got a bit more physical.
I vividly remember my first fight. I never thought it was something that would ever happen, and I’m still not sure how it even got to that point. I think my subconscious has blocked out a lot of my school memories as a form of protection, but sometimes they come creeping back out. I remember being told that one of the girls (the ringleader) wanted to fight me and I had to meet her in our form room at lunchtime. I felt instant dread and a huge conflict over what to do. I wanted to run and to hide but you are always told throughout childhood to stand up to your bullies aren’t you? When the lunchtime bell went, I put on a brave face and headed to face my bully. The rest was a blur but what I do remember is the absolute rage this girl had against me. My former friend. At one point, she had me by the hair, threw me across the desk and started hitting my head, screaming “DIE, BITCH, DIE!”. I was 12. I’m not sure if it was calculated or just luck on my part, but she somehow hadn’t left a mark on me following out fight, and so I kept it a secret from my parents. The following day, she slapped me across the face as hard as she could in the middle of a lesson and left a bright red hand print on my right cheek. The teacher didn’t even bat an eyelid.
Trying to stand up for myself hadn’t helped anything, if anything, things continued to get worse. They would sit behind me in lessons and spit at me, throw chewing gum in my hair and call me names (big nose German was a particular favourite of theirs as I was born in a military hospital in Germany and they were clearly lacking in creativity) and this also continued on the school bus journey home. It was relentless. Teachers never intervened until I pleaded to be moved to a different form group for the following year. This didn’t help much either because I still had some lessons with them, and there was always break time and lunch time. I would lie in bed at night and cry, thinking how nice it would be to just not wake up in the morning so I didn’t have to face them anymore. I even remember one night trying to hold a pillow over my face so I couldn’t breathe but just ended up crying even more. I felt so alone. I desperately wanted to tell my parents but was scared to as I had already tried to stand up to the bullies once before and it hadn’t ended well. Little did I know, I soon wouldn’t have a choice but to tell them.
Year 9 rolled around. Another school year of hell. Another school year filled with pushing and shoving in the hallways, name calling, being spat on, things thrown at me, intimidating glares. What more could they possibly do to me? One particular PE lesson would show me exactly what more they could do. I had survived the lesson fairly unscathed and so when it was over, as it was the last lesson of the day, I was quick to get back to the changing rooms to throw my uniform back on and get a seat on the bus where I would be far enough away from them so they wouldn’t be able to get to me. What I hadn’t realised was the ringleader had followed me. She ended up cornering me against the changing room wall while a friend over hers stood behind her and laughed. I braced myself waiting to be hit, but instead, she pulled out a lighter and burnt the side of my face. That was the day I went home and told my parents everything. We had a police officer come round and take a statement and I thought that would be the end of it all. How did I manage to keep being so wrong?
The next day back at school, I was labelled a ‘grass’ and a ‘snitch’. While the ringleader had just been given a warning and a telling off from her parents, the others remained free to continue their bullying. Even at one point, standing outside of my house and shouting abuse up at my window. Nothing changed and I started to accept this was just my life now because the teachers just didn’t care; so much for their anti-bullying policy, right?
I became an expert at putting on a smile and acting like I was fine, especially at home. But I was losing who I was. I distanced myself from people because I just didn’t trust them. If my own friends could turn on me like this, what else could others do? I lost all confidence, second guessed myself all the time and would shy away from speaking up. I became a wallflower. A people pleaser who would do anything to avoid confrontation. And this continued into adulthood. Even after I finished school and left the bullies behind, I constantly felt the need to look over my shoulder. When I turned 18, everyone else started going out to the pubs and bars but I didn’t because I was scared of bumping into my childhood bullies. It took me a long time to get the confidence to start going out, and whenever I did, I avoided my home town like the plague and would go out elsewhere instead. I’m still a people pleaser now, scared to say or do the wrong thing and I hate that about me. I spent so many years hiding away my own feelings that I struggle now to talk about how I really feel and what I really think. Certain social situations make me anxious and my self confidence is still something I’m working on. I find that I miss out on doing quite a few things because I worry people will laugh at me or I just don’t have the confidence to do it. It’s hard to shake those little voices in my head from all those years ago. I often wonder about the person I might have become if I had not been bullied. Who that confident child might’ve grown up to be? What she might’ve achieved?
As a society, we really don’t give enough thought to our children’s mental health and the impact it can have as they grow older. Looking back now as an adult, I definitely suffered depression and anxiety as a child. But at the time, because it’s not talked about, I just endured and suffered through it. I worry constantly that my children may encounter the same struggles I did and not know how to ask for help because my biggest regret is not doing that sooner. It may not have ended the bullying any faster, but I definitely wouldn’t have felt so alone.
There are so many amazing resources and charities out there supporting the mental health of children, so whether you are a parent or not, it’s important we all work together to support not only our little people’s physical health, but their emotional and mental health too. I will link a few of them below:
Barnardos (believe in children): www.barnardos.org.uk
Young Minds (fighting for young people’s mental health): www.youngminds.org.uk
Place2Be (improving children’s mental health): www.place2be.org.uk