This will be a post for my own blog and for my daughter’s transition year personal project Mental Health in Irish Schools. I write this piece as a proud, concerned mother and as someone who has two children currently in the school system in Ireland.
I’ve been told in the past that I share too much, that I shouldn’t be so much of an open book. I guess how you see this depends on your own situation, so that’s for you to think about. I believe that when a story is shared it should be done in the spirit of helping someone else, who might have had a similar experience and may not be able to speak out about it for any reason. The story of how my daughter came to set up Mental Health in Irish Schools is one that should be told, as is the experience of running the project and seeing it through to wrapping it up soon. It may just help someone else in a similar situation. It may throw some light in a dark place for another child, or another parent. It may even make a principal or a teacher somewhere stop a moment and reconsider their approach. I live in hope.
The truth is the inspiration for this project is Aisling’s younger sibling Niamh. Niamh began to struggle with being in school many years ago and even with as much intervention as we could manage, the struggle became anxiety and panic that lead to Niamh missing months of school at a time. It was difficult sometimes to even get them near the school building. As a family we struggled to get the support needed to help our child at school. Niamh felt a burden at school and there were many days where Niamh was left sitting on corridors or in offices because the school did not have the resources or inclination to help them. On one occasion they were left to sit under a desk at the back of a classroom for a day. I believe that if their initial anxiety had been better managed at school we may well have averted much of the difficulty Niamh had to endure. Life became an endless cycle of letter writing, phone calls and searching for the help we needed. We initially attended a psychiatrist who insisted that Niamh be pushed to go to school no matter how loudly they protested. Against my gut, heart and soul instincts we followed this advice. This made things worse and further heightened the anxiety, especially given the lack of support at school.
We really only began to make progress with a move to a psychologist who actually listened to the issues and worked with Niamh and us to be a guide, sounding board, counsellor and to teach coping skills which Niamh still uses to this day. Niamh returned to school in September 2019 with some eventual support from the school but continued to struggle at times with being in the classroom environment. Then we found ourselves in a pandemic and what would have been Niamh’s last months at primary school were spent at home. This was the break they needed to begin to heal and was something Niamh had no problem with. They were spent emotionally and mentally and just keen to move on. And so we did. Niamh still struggles sometimes but does so in an environment where they’re fully supported and heard.
I believe that Niamh did not present with enough difficulty to be taken seriously at school. I believe that their issues are borderline and difficult to pinpoint and that for that reason the issues Niamh struggled with were dismissed by the principal of their school as misbehaviour for misbehaviour’s sake – an over attachment to me and something to be dealt with at home. I find it difficult to even consider forgiving how Niamh and indeed myself and my husband were treated by the principal of the school Niamh attended at the time. I also believe that had there been better psychological/therapeutic intervention at school that Niamh’s challenges may have been taken seriously when they began to present and be dismissed by the school over 5 years ago.
Aisling witnessed all this as a big sister would. She was stoic, understanding, supportive and so patient when Niamh needed a calming influence. Watching Niamh’s struggle with school and our struggle to get the support that was needed inspired this project. Her own experience of in school supports and that of her peers only added to the awareness that this is an area that could be improved. So she set about looking at possible solutions and decided to set up Mental Health in Irish Schools to look at the issues and talk to people who are interested.
Aisling has a petition set up that has gathered almost 700 signatures at time of writing. She’s interviewed politicians, therapists and advocates for mental health. She’s worked with our good friend Nicki Ringwood to plan a mental health fair at her school which unfortunately didn’t happen the way she wished and planned for due to the pandemic.
This could be a lifetime’s work so we put a time frame in place that this would run until the end of May 2021. This is something Aisling will continue to advocate for in different ways which she’s currently exploring. She’s still collecting signatures on her petition and hoping to finish that off and deliver it in person to the Dail very soon. There’s a passion there, a sense of right and wrong and a strong voice that now it’s found will I’m sure, be put to exceptionally good use in her advocacy work.
The last post on this project will be Aisling’s. I’d like to just thank her for being such an epic human being and for her dedication to this project – there was a lot of work involved and she has seen it all through. Nicki Ringwood has provided the project with the guidance it needed and has become a big sister to Aisling in the process.
If you’d like to sign the petition before we take it to the powers that be, please do so at: https://my.uplift.ie/petitions/better-supports-for-mental-health-in-schools