The Truth About School Avoidance

One of the most common manifestations of the mental illnesses I’ve both endured and witnessed is school avoidance. It crops up both in high school, when one can be labeled truant, and in college, when one can simply fail out of the institution. It’s also one of the most commonly misunderstood symptoms of illnesses like depression and anxiety, among other things. Parents and peers alike may mislabel it as simple truancy, when in reality, those with school avoidance issues are afraid, struggling, and doing the best they can. As such, they must be treated with patience and kindness.

The label of truant is generally assigned to high school students who accumulate a high number of unexcused absences, assuming that their unexcused nature indicates that the reason for the absence was invalid or nonexistent. For a college student, a lack of attendance often simply means no instruction and a failed grade, point blank. To a parent, teacher, or classmate, it can be hard to maintain perspective when all you see is an empty desk or a child lying in bed. Understanding this distinction, however, is crucial to actually helping the bedridden student, for they can be bedridden for a wide variety of complex, painful reasons.

In my case, I missed out on almost my entire sophomore year at my local high school thanks to mental illness related school avoidance. My school is luckily known in its region for being relatively accommodating, so I was not treated as truant and my counselors all regarded me with compassion and respect. Nevertheless, I was unable to get out of bed. I only left to go to the bathroom, shower, and attend my various treatments and appointments. I felt sick to my stomach when I’d consider having to go to school, and Friday mornings were my favorite time of week; once I got clearance to miss school, I’d have the whole weekend to lie in bed. I didn’t understand that what I was experiencing was genuine illness.

Common reasons for school avoidance include depression, anxiety, and bullying, and I was experiencing all three. I could conjure few reasons to get out of bed. My depression was telling me that it was pointless, that I had no future, that getting out of bed to try to attain that future would therefore be fruitless. I was dreading the possibility of encountering folks I’d had bullying issues with, or their friends, or rumors of theirs. I was tired all the time, slept almost all day, cried often. I had friends, I had high level classes, I had potential activities to be engaging in, but I wanted little to do with them. When I did go to school, I spent most of my days in a room that was designed for mentally ill students like me to regroup in, manned by a lovely special education faculty member. Once an ambitious, college bound academic, I was attending maybe three or four classes a week, was terrified of attending even those, dropped out of my extracurriculars, and was too overwhelmed by a curious concoction of guilt, shame, fatigue, apathy, and hopelessness to do anything about it.

An old performance/attendance sheet of mine; aka what attendance while healthy looks like!

Depression, anxiety and bullying are the most common reasons for school avoidance in my area, but there are others that are perhaps just as common in other parts of the country. Some kids are chronically ill because their parents cannot afford high quality healthcare. Some kids may need to miss school to work or care for their siblings/family members. Some kids are raised in a traumatic environment: violent neighborhoods, domestic abuse, loss. These traumas may be at the root of behavioral issues inside and outside of the classroom that lead to missed school. Rarely, in fact, is missed school purely a product of laziness or genuine apathy towards education.

While my parents were generally compassionate throughout my avoidant period, I have encountered many mentally ill peers who engage in a painful push-pull with their understandably frustrated parents. I can see the parental perspective; why don’t they understand that I just want what’s best for them? They’re generally right; whether it be high school or college, it’s hard to gain meaningful employment and a comfortable lifestyle without a degree, whether it be a high school diploma, bachelor’s, or beyond. Parents naturally want what’s best for their kids. Attendance is necessary in order to earn a diploma or degree, of course. Teachers, professors, and administrators, if not properly trained, can automatically see such students as inconvenient anomalies. It would appear as if the child is meaninglessly sabotaging themselves. To the student’s friends and classmates, there may persist a perception of laziness or perhaps oppositional behavioral issues, when the explanation is for more sympathetic in reality. As Mark Twain described it in Huckleberry Finn, truancy has long been seen as “a joyous rebellion against authority and responsibility,” a portrayal unlikely to foster compassionate understanding in its observers.

It’s crucial that parents, teachers, peers, and everyone else in a school avoidant child’s life be as empathetic towards the student’s plight as possible. Statistically speaking, the child is likely enduring a painful internal battle, ranging from anxiety to PTSD (and many in between). Treating them with judgement and hostility is more likely to increase the emotions that are keeping them home in the first place: sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame. What the child needs is non-judgement and a referral to a healthcare provider. Therapists and similar doctors will know how to recommend an academic plan that makes sense for the child, and they will be able to do it while maintaining proper, healthy decorum. It isn’t your job as an adult or authority figure to shame, coerce, or scare the child into attending. If you are doing these things, they are more a reflection of your fear and anger than they are of an understanding of what is best for the child.

If you are currently struggling with school avoidance, your experience is both common and not your fault. You’re going through something objectively very difficult, whether it be mental illness or having to provide at a young age, physical illness or anything similar. You deserve access to the kind of care and attention that can help get you back on your feet. Once you’ve bounced back, as you always will, you’re off to the races.

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