This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.
Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?
School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.
I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:
“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”
“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”
“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”
“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”
And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.
There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.
“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”
These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.
Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.
Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.
“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”
For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.
I am fortunate to regularly be a panelist on Channel 9’s Mornings with Jane Caro, self-described novelist (Just a Girl), author (The Stupid Country, The F Word), writer, feminist, atheist, Gruen Chick, speaker, media tart, wife, mother and stirrer. I recently spent time with her at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, where she took part in two particularly inspiring and stand-out panels on public schooling and feminism.
I joked with her afterwards that she should get a T-shirt made up: “Jane Caro, challenging bullshit since 1957”. I think her considered, and occasionally fierce, approach to challenging issues is exactly what we need in this age of subtext and hidden agendas. She and I have had some really powerful discussions on the role the media plays in shaping our self-perception and on whether or not real confidence can, in fact, be taught. I enjoy our ongoing debates, as they are always mutually respectful and stretch me enormously.
At another session at the writer’s festival, Women of Letters, Jane read a piece she had written on her experiences overcoming an anxiety disorder. I loved her honestly in revealing her struggles. When we share our struggles, we have enormous capacity to inspire others to face and overcome their own issues. That’s why I share my struggles with body image and alcohol in my books. Many girls thank me and say things like “I thought I was the only one who struggled” or “I felt so alone.” Girls (and women!) can’t be what they can’t see — imagine how liberating it would be if more female leaders revealed their vulnerable sides and spoke of their own trials. The truly powerful show all of themselves.
I’m excited to feature Jane’s moving and inspiring account of overcoming anxiety here on the blog this week. This is a special exclusive for Enlighten Amazons, as it is the first time this story has been published. Next week, we’ll be following up this feature with a look at the causes and treatments for anxiety, which affects 15% of people aged 16-24 and 5% of Australians of all ages.
A letter to the person I’d have been if I had stayed in “that relationship” with anxiety
Are you still waiting for that sword to fall? Are you still facing the world with your eyes wide open (I have the wrinkles your hyper-vigilant state of alert etched into my forehead with me still), eyebrows lifted as you scan the world for the danger that you are sure is there – just there, round the next corner, crouched like a lion ready to pounce, in the very next second?
The fangs and claws you feared was madness. It wasn’t what was outside you that terrified you, it was what you carried within.
Do you still have pins and needles in your wrists and hands? That sense of being eternally tensed and ready to fend off danger, to protect yourself or turn and flee? Poised, on tiptoes, ready for fight or flight. How exhausted you must be, how ground down – or maybe, finally, you have managed to do what you always most feared and have driven yourself mad. I used to think it might be a relief to give in, to stop fighting and let the demons take over.
Do you still drive past pedestrians, convinced that only by dint of great effort have you defeated the impulse to run them down and that next time – the mental anguish of this thought always nauseated you – you may not be so lucky? Do you still hate edges? Edges of train platforms, cliffs, open windows on upper floors? Remember how you had to crawl past that long, low window in the hotel room in Rome, sick to your stomach? You never knew if you had the mental strength to resist the twin urges that overwhelmed you whenever you came to an edge – especially unexpectedly – to either push someone else over or plunge over yourself. And, truly, I know well, you would have preferred the latter. I remember thinking – when I was still you – that I could always commit suicide and that the thought was a comfort. And we were so young, back then, and so afraid.
So many things nauseated you – sharp knives, little children, boiling water – you became convinced you carried a monster around inside you. A monster you had to control.
Have you still not realized that was what it was all about – control? That you were casting magic spells with fate, trying to make a bargain with gods you didn’t actually believe in? You felt that you could (had to?) control the monsters by anticipating them and remaining on high alert. Have you still not understood that you had neither the power to defeat danger by imagining it in advance nor – as you always deeply feared – make it happen by simply conjuring it up in your mind?
Are you still trapped in the vicious circle of worrying about worrying about things? It was egotistical, in a way, that belief in your own importance and power – your imaginary dangerousness. This may astonish you, but in the end, I believe it was humility that defeated the fear.
But before I get to that, I have so many things to thank you for and now is my chance to give my ten years of anxiety their due. You taught me so much that I do not believe I could have learned any other way. You taught me not to rush to judgment, ever. To understand what struggling with mental anguish and the demons in the depths of your own mind is like. I cannot condemn the murderer, the evildoer, even the pedophile as others seem able to do. I thought I was a monster; I felt overwhelmed with terrifying, dark thoughts. I know their power and their terror. Who am I to judge? Thank you for that; it was worth every nauseating minute to learn that lesson in humanity, not simply intellectually but viscerally. The only hymn I love is “Amazing Grace”, because I feel as if I understand it. When I read of someone the world is vilifying and whose deeds are dark, there is still a part of me that reminds me “There but for the grace of God go I.” Thank you, thank you, thank you for that. Compassion and humility are very great gifts.
You made me a writer. Novelists, in particular, must be able to understand and value all their characters, even the worst of them. We must be able to fully occupy their inner world to make them real to our readers, to make them live. Suffering informs the imagination, broadens it, hones it, softens it.
You forced me to seek help. Now I understand that my anxiety was the healthiest part of me at that time. You would not let me go until I had dealt with the patterns of thinking that were no longer working for me. You were inexorable. I had to face you, and you would not leave me until I did. It was you who forced me to reach out to psychologists, psychiatrists and, finally, most successfully, a counsellor. All of them taught me many things about being alive and what it is to be human. They could not cure me – in the end, I had to do that for myself – but they gave me the tools, the information, the commonsense and the wisdom that, when I was finally ready, I picked up and used. I use them all still. And when I need it, I remain happy to seek help knowing that I will find it. I have passed on many of the skills and wisdom I learnt, particularly to my daughters, neither of whom seem to suffer with the anxiety that so bedevilled my own youth.
And my terror made me feel alive – painfully so – but very aware of myself, the world and my place in it. I struggled and I grew. Sometimes I miss that. I am happier now but also more complacent and a little bit less present. Even self-confidence has its price.
But how did it end? How did we break up and how did I manage to leave you behind, now for almost a quarter of a century?
I experienced real, rather than imaginary, danger and did not go mad.
My first baby was born prematurely and caught an infection in the hospital: RSV and bronchiolitis, still the biggest single killer of babies under one. After a few harrowing days in the crowded babies ward, she stopped breathing in my arms and had to be resuscitated. She stopped breathing two more times that night and ended up being intubated in the last available intensive care neo-natal bed in NSW. She was officially the sickest child in the state.
The next morning, convinced she would die (I remember clearly thinking, “I have only known her for 13 days but if she dies, so will I”), I did what I had learnt to do – thanks to you – and reached out for help. Dr Peter Barr, neo-natologist and grief counsellor, met me in the coffee shop of the hospital. There he said these words to me that, 25 years later, I can still quote verbatim.
“There is nothing special about you,” he said. “There is nothing special about Polly. Terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. Safety is an illusion. Danger is reality.”
Invisible bricks fell from my shoulders as he spoke, as I realized that I had to deal with what was and not what might be. There was nothing special about me; I had no power over my fate or even my child’s. Terrible things could and might happen but I would only worry about them when they did. I gave up control.
I have been frightened since, but never anxious.
I still don’t much like edges, though.
Jane Caro is the author of:
Just a Girl, a young adult historical fiction told from the perspective of Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who on the cusp of her coronation wonders, “How do you find the courage to become queen even though you are just a girl?”
The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism(with Catherine Fox), which challenges “the pervasive idea that women will never be able to effectively combine work or interests outside the home with marriage, a social life and parenting” by telling the stories of a range of women and providing “practical suggestions for forgiving ourselves, having fun and not giving up while holding it all together”.
Last week the Herald Sun reported that children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s eating disorders clinic, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.
The crew at Kerri-anne asked me to come on and discuss this worrying trend with viewers yesterday. I asked for Melinda Hutchings — an eating disorders survivor, ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation and author of the incredible Why Can’t I Look The Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues to accompany me to offer her personal insights.
As is always the case with live breakfast television, there wasn’t enough time to offer all the insights we would like, so I have asked Melinda to be my guest blogger this week.
A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa; the rest were experiencing “food avoidant emotional disorder”, a condition unique to children, which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.
And according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.
Children spend much of their early lives at school, an environment that can be competitive, with hierarchies often based on physical appearances. A negative fixation on weight and size potentially lends itself to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, which can be triggered by situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. These include family arguments related to eating (e.g. “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “Go away, we don’t want to play with you”) or feeling like a misfit.
Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity around body image. If left undetected, these feelings can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.
In my book Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as “normal” behaviour – unless you know what to look for. Common warning signs include avoiding eating in front of others, making excuses to avoid family meal times, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food, e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be “healthy”. In addition, ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery is cause for concern.
There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as falling behind in class.
Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals from an eating issue into an eating disorder.
Here are five tips for parents and carers:
1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.
2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.
3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calorie contents, or complain that they are fat (when they’re not) this is a red flag.
4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.
5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn’t realise how much they are eating and/or aren’t enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.
In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched. Melinda Hutchings