Mental illness among the young is reaching epidemic levels, and barely a day goes by without another story of loss and devastation hitting the news. For sufferers and their loved ones, it is often difficult to look beyond their personal misery and focus on the many stories offering hope and inspiration.
This is particularly true in the early years after diagnosis. Plans for the future are destroyed. GCSEs, A-Levels, a university degree all suddenly seem unobtainable. Youngsters are forced to sit on the sidelines and watch as their friends move on with their bright lives full of opportunity. Meanwhile, they themselves are left behind to deal with the despair of their broken, directionless existence. Parents are thrown into turmoil. Not only do they have to deal with the immediate challenges of caring for their mentally ill child, but their thoughts inevitably turn to the future. Without qualifications, how will their child find a rewarding career? What careers are suitable for people with mental illness? Will their child end up stacking supermarket shelves in the dead of night?
This is the heart breaking situation I found myself in 5 years ago when I discovered my daughter Sally was self-harming. A short time later she was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. It wasn’t long before prescribed medication dulled her brain, rapidly turning her from an intelligent, high-achiever into someone who struggled to concentrate, or answer even the simplest questions. Inevitably Sally fell off the education production line, dropping out of school at the age of 17 without any A-levels. This led to a sense of abject failure being piled on top of her already low self-esteem.
When Sally dropped out of school I felt an overwhelming need to get her back into education. Education. Education. Education. This has long been the mantra from the
Government, the education system, employers and society in general. Throughout my entire life I have been brainwashed into believing that qualifications, tertiary education and a career are the only way to succeed in life. Everything else is failure.
There is no annex to the rule-book of parenthood that explains how to reconcile your child’s mental illness with their need –whether real or perceived- for qualifications. If such a tome exists, I’ve never seen it. Neither have I come across career guidance for young people with mental illness. No specialist career officers. No questionnaires. Nothing. You have to write your own. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d encourage the very first sentence of the very first page to shout out ‘FORGET ABOUT EDUCATION. FORGET ABOUT CAREERS. They can wait. FOCUS ON GETTING BETTER!!!
Thankfully society has moved on to a place where mental illness is no longer taboo. This is great news, and testament to all the hard work that has happened across the world. Countless research projects, academic studies and media attention have come together to shine a bright light on the myriad of mental health problems that plague modern society.
What we now need is for education and employment to catch up. For many youngsters prone to mental illness, full time education and traditional careers are simply not suitable. Let’s accept this reality, and look for creative ways of adapting the system to meet their needs. Let’s focus on removing the stigma, guilt and sense of failure attached to dropping out of education. And for those who are forced down this path, let’s turn our collective thinking towards improving their future employment prospects. Sadly there is a wealth of data to call on. Let’s put it to good use by collecting, analysing and learning from it.