The neglect of schoolchildren with mental health concerns has long been a failure of government policy. As a teenager I was not only the subject of intense bullying and torment at school, but also lacked any help in securing assistance in the wake of psychosis and severe depression. Only forty years later, in hindsight, can I really reflect on the relationship between my experiences then and my experiences in adulthood.
"In the absence of early intervention, I was left with the ravages of undiagnosed schizophrenia and depression."
Secondary school was a disastrous period for me. I made very few friends and I was particularly bullied by a gang that meted out abuse and violence. I have no doubt that this victimisation was a contributory factor towards the cause of mental illness later on in my life. Symptoms were also very apparent at this early age. During my adolescence my problems were made worse by the break-up of my parents’ marriage. Before the divorce my father spent many days away from the family home. The trauma caused by school life became unbearable. There were several signs that I was unwell. For example, I used to imagine that I smelt of excrement and as a result, I would bath very regularly.
I can remember one occasion when just before sitting an exam, I passed a group of boys who were, I thought, saying derogatory things about me. I was then experiencing paranoia. The bullying together with the mental illness became very hard to cope with. The alienation and trauma I suffered made it difficult for me to make friends. While in the sixth form, I worked for a year doing a Saturday job in Halfords in Streatham in London where I grew up. The stress of coping with school and work on Saturdays was too much to bear.
Later, while doing a business course at the London South Bank University, I often felt threatened by the other students around me. I was convinced that they wanted to destroy me and I experienced similar delusions about my family. The psychosis was particularly acute during the preparation of exams. The course was very demanding. Over thee years, I sat over 50 hours of exams in subjects ranging from business law to accounting.
I found the seminars at the South Bank very draining. I found it very hard to contribute to the debates and in the wake of these, I would return home full of painful delusions and paranoia. I would turn up at lectures feeling distraught. It was as though I was going through a trauma of the loss of a close relative or friend. My brain was subjected to severe pressure and quite often I was convinced that my mind would explode. The emotional sacrifice was huge. I was determined to pass the exams, but the constant pounding on a daily basis of my brain became unbearable.
After the South Bank, I took up a post in the Management Accounts Department at Guy’s Hospital in London. Experiencing extreme psychosis, I spent much time pretending to work at my desk. I could not concentrate and in a psychotic state was totally dysfunctional. I can also remember suffering from bipolar depression with drastic highs and lows
I was at a loss on how best to proceed, but I was aware that I could function and just about survive in a university environment. I resigned from my job at Guy’s and applied for degree course at Brunel University. The psychosis made me unable to take rational decisions and I did not seek medical help. This is a case though of being wise after the event. I was at this time in my life no doubt in denial about how sick I was. In retrospect, I believe that I should have been directed to psychiatric assistance, and this could have happened at school.
Transforming young people's mental health prospects
Schools and colleges are now training staff to support young people to reach their potential to address what has been a perennial problem for years. An important turning point was the introduction at the end of 2017 of the Green Paper geared to transforming youngsters’ mental health provision. The overriding issue was to take on board early interventions to enhance those afflicted in the school population. From next year, mental health lessons will be compulsory.
The anguish I experienced manifested itself even more as I grew older and I showed all the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression. In 1987, I endured a major breakdown and was hospitalised. At long last I was prescribed anti-psychotic medication and anti-depressants. I did not, however, receive a diagnosis until ten years after leaving school. I went on to write six published books and to pass the equivalent of six degrees, including two doctorates. I now work as a freelance journalist and I have worked at Roehampton, Cambridge, Adelaide and London Universities.
In giving evidence to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority in Coventry a decade ago, I spearheaded a move to get mental health in schools on the political agenda. I may have influenced the climate of change in seeking to address the psychological needs of the young. Yet it has only been in very recent years that the government has sanctioned the employment of hundreds of new mental health workers deployed to assist children and adolescents. These inroads carry with them much hope for the future and I strongly believe that had they been in place in my childhood, then my life would have been so much easier.
My own mental health would have benefited no end had a medical apparatus at my school been in place to assist me. In the absence of early intervention, I was left with the ravages of undiagnosed schizophrenia and depression. The outcome was that I suffered a huge amount of anguish in my adult years, and I was denied many opportunities, which otherwise would have come my way.
Dr Richard Willis is a freelance journalist and prolific writer of books and articles.