When it’s not OK not to be OK

School Phobia/ School Refusal Australia has made 44 recommendations to Victoria’s mental health royal commission.

The submission is titled ‘When it’s not OK not to be OK: Victoria’s invisible education and mental health crisis’.

Our submission aims to shine a spotlight on the lack of evidence-based interventions and supports for hundreds of children and teenagers across Victoria are unable to attend school due to poor mental health and mental illness.

Complex, long-term school refusal has distressing immediate, medium-term and long-term impacts on the student and their family. Some of our families describe themselves as ‘broken’.

The longer a child is out of school the greater the chance they will require acute health and mental health services and the greater the chance they will grow into adults unable to function independently in the community, some are likely to enter the prison system or become homeless.

The literature calls it ‘school refusal’. We call it ‘school can’t’. Our children are not refusing to go to school. They are unable to go to school. Parents seek the help of principals, teachers and health professionals. We believe that once we ask for help — help will be forthcoming. We are devastated when it is not.

Instead of receiving evidence-based advice, support and treatment, families often receive advice ranging from ineffective to sometimes harmful. Instead of focusing on improving our children’s and young people’s mental health, the advice simply concentrates on returning to education.

Our children’s mental health deteriorates, parents’ mental health deteriorates, our families struggle financially and emotionally, and we bounce around the system searching for help.

Our lived experience is revealing that many of these children have diagnosed or undiagnosed neurodevelopmental conditions including autism, ADHD, specific learning disorder (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia), communication disorder, sensory processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, and dyspraxia.

Many of these children also have diagnosed or undiagnosed anxiety disorders (typically generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder) and major depressive disorder.

We believe that the existing evidence-base for school refusal behaviour has not addressed neurodevelopmental conditions, nor has it analysed the school environment.

Our submission focuses on local and systems-level solutions to bridge the gap between the education system, the disability sector and the mental health system to find a way out to get these children and young people out of Victoria’s mental health system’s ‘too hard’ basket. In the longer term we want to prevent students experiencing complex and long-term school refusal.

This submission is intended to give a voice to these invisible children, young people and their families. They have sought help and failed, unless they were ‘lucky’. We hope our lived experience can help the royal commission recommend changes that will support our children and young people to thrive, to recover, to plan a future and perhaps save their lives.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health Services will deliver an interim report to the Andrews Government in November 2019 and a final report in October 2020.

Read the School Phobia/ School Refusal Australia submission