Something I have been thinking a lot about recently is why the rates of mental illness are rising (as evidenced by rising suicide rates).
We live in a time that is prosperous, so why are people increasingly killing themselves? What is going wrong?
And then I thought about children.
As a parent, I have the opportunity to see the education system from a different angle than I did as a child. And what I see is something like this.
From birth, from the gifting of the red book (that we get with a new baby here in the UK), your baby has certain duties to perform and certain pressures to fulfil. S/he must develop right. And you, as a parent, are responsible for tracking that, for making sure they fulfil their potential, and if for any reason they don’t succeed, the fallout will be on you. You will have failed them.
These children, who have been protected and fretted over, then enter school, and at school, yet again, the pressure is on them to fulfil someone else’s agenda. To meet the school’s target so the school doesn’t get in trouble. To maintain the school’s reputation so the school continues to be in demand with parents from a certain background. To jump through certain hoops to protect their teacher’s job. To learn to read and write on time so they don’t cause their parents any concern. To do well in extra curricular activities so parents can play their part in the expected performance of parenting.
Where is the space to be?
When do our children get to be?
From birth, they have to be performing to someone else’s standards.
If they do well at this, they reach adulthood and the pressure never ends. They will go to university and have a role to perform there. Standards to uphold. They will go to work and have a boss or a department to protect and uphold through their work efforts.
But no space to be.
If you need space to be – if you, for whatever reason, cannot continue to perform for these endless targets – then often the only option is to drop out.
But there is no support for that.
We have few alternative spaces for children who are not coping in school. Little public resources to cater for them. Little if any financial support for a parent who has to choose between continuing to send their child to an institution where they are distressed, or leaving work so the child can recover at home (under homeschooling).
I grew up in a very academic family. My father and both grandfathers graduated from Cambridge university. A degree from a first class university is the norm not the exception in our particular culture.
The most freeing and liberating thing I ever did was to leave the entire system. To step out of the lane of education – work – retirement. It’s terrifying because I don’t have a pension. But I was able to recover myself from suicidal thinking and a lack of a sense of self and it took years. It is still a work in progress.
I was able to do that because I had financial support from my now-husband (and through him giving me that he is now more trapped in the cycle I was able to step out of, because he has to support me as well as himself) and from my family. I was lucky. Without that support, without that generosity, what would have become of me? Where would I be now? Would I be, now?
It is my firm belief that the rate of autism and ADHD is not rising. We have always had the numbers of autistic and ADHD people we have now. What is rising is the rate of pressure and distress among young people. What is rising is the amount of pressure on parents. The amount of pressure on teachers. On schools.
There is a given among the autistic community that anxiety is a part of autism.
But is it?
The anxiety I experience has in large part been relieved the longer I have been out of the rat race. Anxiety is not a fundamental part of my autism. It is as a result of having to fit a system that didn’t fit me.
I was able to leave the system and find myself. I was able to reclaim my identity through space, through time, through connection with nature, and through my autism diagnosis which helps me protect my right to sensitivity.
There was never anything wrong with me. But without the space I have been provided over the past nine years, I would continue to believe that there is.
I used to worry, before my own diagnosis, about my children being given special needs diagnosis. I used to think children with SEN diagnoses were somehow less than. But I no longer think that. I see diagnoses as the only means of protection we have for our children against a system that often denies them the right to have needs. That denies then the right to be. These diagnoses don’t always achieve that. But they are a start, they a stepping stone, they are a lifeline.
I wonder where the spaces are for our young folk to be. How they can establish a sense of self amongst the noise and the pressure. It’s so important that we start thinking about how to reclaim that for them. That we reclaim their right to be more than a statistic, more than a grade, more than an early walker or a late talker, more than a performing monkey.
Maybe if we did that, the astonishing and tragic rates of bullying, self harm and suicide we currently see among our youth would begin to drop.