Dropping Out – When Mental Illness Becomes Too Much

A couple of weeks ago, the results of the National Student Survey were published, and there was one statistic that really stood out to me. Out of the 41.7% of students surveyed who thought about dropping out of college, the top reason for this was mental health concerns. I can’t say that this shocked me, but I thought it was something that needed to be talked about more. More often than not when we hear of somebody dropping out, we can roll our eyes and label them as “lazy”. But 99.9% of the time, this just isn’t the case.mh1

In my second semester of college, I had serious thoughts about dropping out. My anxiety was at an all-time high, to the point where I was barely leaving my bedroom. I’d lost interest in everything, going out was no longer fun and I was struggling to enjoy my lectures the way that I used to. I missed the comfort of my own home and all I wanted to do was go back to Mayo, for my mum to comfort me and remind me that things would be okay. After speaking to a counsellor in UL, I decided I’d take a leave of absence from college. But I was too afraid to say it to my parents, to my friends in college, to my friends back home, and soon the closing date for leave of absence submissions had passed.

mh4I stayed in college, and although it was a very tough semester I managed to get through it. Now my mental health is a lot better, I’m finally enjoying going out again and I’m writing more than ever, plus I can’t wait to go back to Limerick in September. But having experienced the turmoil that comes with making the decision on whether or not to drop out, I know just how hard it can be. Out of the 41.7% of students surveyed, the top reason for thinking about dropping out was mental health concerns. So I spoke to two students, one who dropped out of college, and one who dropped out of school, due to their mental health.

Hannah Murphy is an 18-year-old from Swords, in Co. Dublin. Last year, she started a History course in Trinity College, and ended up dropping out in February, which was ultimately the best decision for her health. Speaking about her mental health, Hannah says that there were concerns from a young age:

“I had a brief history of pyschosomatic illness when I was about ten or eleven, but I had ‘recovered’ fine. Despite being quite extroverted as a kid, it became the opposite at fifteen and I started getting pretty bad anxiety around most social situations, including school.” mh3

Having experienced panic during her leaving cert exams, Hannah didn’t do as well as she thought she would, and felt that this had a huge impact on her mindset going into college. She was disappointed that she didn’t get her dream course, and felt as though she had failed.

Her mental health issues had a huge impact on her college attendance, and Hannah says she skipped at least half of her lectures, sometimes arriving outside the door and backing out at the last minute. She left work until the very last minute, so that she was almost forced to do it. She says that this got even worse by the second semester, adding “By then I really just didn’t care anymore”.

mh2Hannah had contemplated dropping out from the very start, but it took her until February to come to her final decision. With the support of her parents, who knew just how much she was struggling, Hannah decided to leave college for the sake of her mental wellbeing.

Talking about the stigma attached to mental illness, Hannah acknowledges that it’s still there, although it’s now a different type of stigma to before: “I think it’s a case where most people will acknowledge mental illness and sympathize with it, but when actually directly confronted with it from a friend/family member it becomes something they don’t want to really face.”

Hannah isn’t surprised by the statistic from the NSS, and adds that the system kids and teenagers go through right before college isn’t one that breeds mindfulness and self-care very well.

Since dropping out, Hannah says that she’s doing a whole lot better. She’s now being medicated, and is still in therapy but is realising more and more that college wasn’t and still is not for her at the moment. She adds, “I’m not even sure what I want to do, so maybe when I’m a little older and stronger mentally I’ll go back.”

Amy Golden is a 19-year-old from Bonniconlon, Co. Mayo. She attended Gortnor Abbey secondary school, where she dropped out in the September of her leaving cert year due to the toll it was taking on her mental health. mh5

For as long as she can remember, Amy has suffered from depression and has been sent to child psychologists from the age of five. It was triggered again when she was in second year, after the sudden death of somebody she knew, and what continued was a downward spiral for Amy’s mental health. It got to the point where she had to be hospitalised for two months at the end of 2014, after being admitted with self-harm injuries and suicidal thoughts. During her stay, Amy was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Dropping out of school was a difficult decision for Amy, but the mere thought of her leaving cert created stress and led to her self-harming. She reflects back on her final day of school, when she’d hit a breaking point: “The bus had just started, and I could feel this pain in my stomach. I could feel the tears coming, and my arms started to pulse and itch for me to harm myself again. I didn’t take any heed, and when I got to school I went straight to the toilet and bawled my eyes out, and then I self-harmed.”

Although she knew deep down that she needed to drop out, it was hard to come to that final decision. Amy knew it was the best thing she could do for herself, and adds, “if I did stay in school, I would have definitely have been dead By October.”

mh6Like many people who drop out, Amy was petrified about what her friends and family would think, “All I could hear in my head was people saying, ‘She’s only going to go on the dole and do nothing with her life,’ or think that I was a complete waster.” Luckily for Amy, her family were very supportive, and did all they could to learn about her mental illness. However her ordeal also separated the true friends from the fake ones, and many chose not to stick around.

Amy agrees that there’s still a stigma attached to mental illness, and recalls on one particular incident where a family member wasn’t exactly supportive, “I’ve had a family member of mine tell her friends that I was in hospital for a bad tummy bug, because she didn’t want to put up with the ‘shame’ of being related to someone who was ‘mental’.”

Amy feels that there’s nowhere near enough support for students with a mental illness in schools, and says that on a scale of one to ten, she’d give it a three. She adds that a talk about mental health in SPHE for a day or two is not substantial.mh7

Since making the tough but necessary decision to leave school, Amy’s mental health is stable. She’s currently on a high dose of anti-depressants, and sees a clinical psychologist every few months. But it’s still an uphill battle for Amy, who was supposed to receive Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) months ago, which was put on hold when her psychologist went on maternity leave. Her psychologist is the only one in Mayo who specialises in Borderline Personality Disorder, and Amy says the wait has held her back in more ways than one, “I cannot do anything until I start DBT, as it basically gives me life skills, which I need to continue in education or work. There isn’t enough resources for me to even meet someone once a week to speak to while I wait.”

However, Amy recognises that she’s come a long way since September 2014, and adds, “It gets better. Not quickly, but step by step.”

Next time you hear of somebody dropping out of school or college, don’t be so quick to judge. There are many reasons that people leave education early, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t return to it. When you could potentially lose a grant, or even a scholarship, dropping out is no easy decision, but sometimes it’s one that just has to be made. If someone dropped out of college due to a physical illness, there’d be no questions asked. Your mental health is more important than anything, and if you need to take a year out to look after it, then that’s what you need to do.

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