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Concerns over rise in ‘school refusal’ cases

April 29th, 2024 7:00 AM

By Emma Connolly

Some students didn’t make it back to school post-pandemic. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Parents say they’re at their wits’ end with some children not leaving their bedrooms for a year.

THE rise in school and college dropout rates – known as ‘school refusal’ – was the focus of an open day at the National Learning Network (NLN) in Bantry last week.

The network, part of the Rehab group, says a surge in anxiety and depression amongst children and teens has led many to avoid returning to school or college post-pandemic, or being unable to make the transition from second to third level.

NLN also has centres in Model Farm Road and Hollyhill in Cork city, and on Wednesday of this week it held a national open day to showcase its services. It offers an alternative to traditional education, emphasising the development of essential lifeskills, mental health support, and employability.

Jane Watson, an NLN psychologist, said that many young people developed mental health issues during the pandemic, exacerbating their reluctance to return to school or college.

Recent data from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) shows college dropout rates soaring from 9% to 15% between 2019/2020 and 2021/2022, affecting nearly 7,000 students.

Ms Watson said many young people who may have had undiagnosed underlying issues before the pandemic, developed eating disorders, anxiety disorders and substance abuse issues. Others may not have left their bedrooms in a year.

‘Midway through Covid, we began to see a new set of needs emerging among parents and referral agencies contacting us,’ she said.

‘Young people who were around 14 years old when the pandemic hit refused to go back to school. Some of these young people may have had pre-existing anxiety or mental health vulnerabilities, and what lockdown and isolation did was to compound matters. Their anxiety grew and rose exponentially, anxiety about Covid, then anxiety about people and leaving their house.

‘Then the schools and colleges reopened, and everybody was delighted, but a cohort of young people just didn’t make it back to school, and many have ended up with us.’

Sean Lenihan, a rehabilitation officer at NLN Bantry, said they were seeing a ‘new cohort’ of young people needing supports who were experiencing anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed and in some cases undiagnosed developmental concerns such as autism.

‘We’re hearing a lot about school refusals, particularly at Leaving Cert. Parents are telling us their child won’t come out of their room, their self-care is poor and they may be developing mental health issues. That’s where we step in, offering a safe environment. If anxiety isn’t treated, it becomes huge, and resilience is lost.’

Students are referred to NLN through the HSE’s service for child and adolescent mental health supports (Camhs), from occupational therapists, social workers and psychiatric nurses.

‘We are getting calls from parents at their wits’ end about young teens who haven’t left the house in a year, and they need an alternative education path and that is where we come in,’ said Watson.

‘Equally, we had people who started what would have been the first year of college when Covid hit, so it was college lectures from their bedrooms. Addictions crept in, either smoking a lot of cannabis or drinking a lot of alcohol, and they could not face returning. They tell us they no longer know how to socialise and interact.’

Ms Watson described Covid and reliance on social media as the ‘perfect storm’ for a surge in complex mental health conditions in young people.

‘It can be so hard on the parents who cannot get their child to return to school or college. Parents are at a breaking point in dealing with the fallout, which is still going on. Many have told us NLN has been the most positive educational experience they’ve had,’ she said.

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