In elementary school, I was labeled “gifted,” and I excelled academically. However, I was extremely fearful, especially about being away from my mother. My well-meaning elementary school relied on a trendy “tough love” method to combat separation anxiety, a tactic that can work well with emotionally-normative children but is often detrimental to children with anxiety disorders. My own anxiety intensified over time.
By junior high, I had frequent panic attacks that would require me to leave school. Constant obsessive fears prevented me from being able to focus on my academic or social goals, and the compulsive rituals I invented to mollify myself became increasingly time-consuming. My school was unsupportive. They were unwilling to provide accommodations for me, and, when I turned to a guidance counselor, she sent me home for the day and then actually joked about my anxiety with some of my friends. It was clear to me that my school did not understand anxiety disorders.
When my grades began to drop steeply, my parents tried every technique they could think of to get me back on track: They met with my teachers, took away privileges, gave me rewards, helped me manage my time, sent me to study skills class, had serious talks with me, begged, cried, and, finally, took me to a psychiatrist. I was quickly diagnosed with Panic Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and I immediately began a treatment course that made it possible for me to bring my grades back up and complete high school, college, and a master’s degree in teaching. The skills I learned throughout treatment allow me to stay calm and in control even in stressful situations. At 24, I am panic-free.
I am awed by the progress we’ve made regarding children’s mental health. Sadly, I still hear stories about schools in our city failing to accomodate and support anxious children. My mission is to provide enrichment and academic instruction for these and other children whose needs are not met by traditional schooling.
Read Kiri Van Santen’s guest blog post and tips for parents of students with school refusal on healthyplace.com!