How private school damaged my mental health

The pressure to succeed caused me to shut down entirely

My chest is tight, mind racing. How can I escape? The walls are closing in, my palms clammy. The room is spinning fast, my stomach doing somersaults. Someone get me out of here. My veins turn to ice, every part of my body trembling as a room full of staring eyes fixate on me. I need to get out, I’m going to be sick. My heart is thumping in my ear, the sound deafening as stars dance in front of my eyes. What the hell is happening to me? I race out of the door in a blind panic, pushing people out of the way as I run frantically along the corridor, I only just make it to the bathroom before I throw up and collapse, crying in a heap on the floor.

It took me a while to realise that I had just experienced my first panic attack.

At the start of sixth year, I moved from my local state school to a private school in a nearby town. It was terrifying, I knew it would be, but I was hopeful – I knew this was my best chance of getting into the course I wanted at university. The first week went well, everyone was welcoming and friendly, but it wasn’t long until the novelty of being the ‘new girl’ wore off, and it was my turn to start forming friendships.

I tried my best to make everyone like me, talk about things they were interested in, speak the way they spoke. It was a small year group and most of them had known each other from the age of four, so the bonds between them were formed and they were solid, I soon realised I was an outsider trying to muscle my way in somewhere I just didn’t belong.

I told myself it would get better, I just had to settle in and I’d get used to it, but two months later and it was only getting worse. The panic attacks came daily, sometimes twice, and each time they were terrifying, exhausting, overwhelming. My head constantly whirred with worries, panic and thoughts I couldn’t make sense of. It was tiring, took everything out of me and before I knew it, I was suffering from severe depression. Everyday things became difficult – holding conversations, concentrating in class, even just staying awake. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone or do anything. 

It’s hard to come to grips with these feelings when you’ve never experienced them before. I’d spent the last five years surrounded by friends I adored and a close community of classmates. I was happy, I was confident, I was hopeful. One week into my new school and all of that was completely undone. I just didn’t fit in and I couldn’t cope. My teachers told me to try harder. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, so I stopped trying.

Speaking to some other classmates who also suffered from mental illness during their time at this school revealed they had similar experiences. One girl confided in me about her history of eating disorders, saying she felt that staying skinny was one thing she could control, one success she could hold onto in a school that always demanded more.

Of course, mental health problems are prevalent in state schools too, but the common denominator was that almost all the private school pupils who were suffering seemed to say it was because they felt they could never meet the expectations that the school set, or match up to classmates who seemed to ‘have it all together’.

Another thing I noticed from my experience attending both, is that private schools, in my opinion, offer virtually no information or support for pupils who were suffering. It was not an issue that was addressed, it was swept under the rug, presumably to avoid tarnishing the school’s reputation. In my state school, we were bombarded with leaflets, talks and tutorial classes about mental health, the dangers of depression, and how to get help if you were struggling. I noticed none of this in my new school other than a tatty poster with the number for the Samaritans, hidden in a far-flung corner of the corridor.

26 per cent of HMC independent day schools have no provision for mental health, such as in-house counsellors. A friend told me: “Mental health was never really mentioned or brought up even though they must be aware students are struggling with it. By treating it as a taboo subject, an issue which isn’t relevant in their school, they’re making those who do struggle with it feel even more isolated.”

Private schools are great in many aspects, they offer small class sizes so pupils who are struggling academically can get more individual attention, they motivate pupils to work hard and become ‘ambassadors in their field’. Whilst everyone in my year group did very well in their exams and most have gone on to university, which is great, I cannot help but wonder if some of them may have chosen another path had they known it was available. Nothing other than university seemed to be an option, and I’m sure that these expectations are in part the reason for the high rate of mental illness in these schools.

Schools are supposed to nurture pupils, help them to grow in all respects whilst giving them the best possible start in life. Whilst many pupils do thrive in private school environments, there needs to be more provisions put in place for the ones who are struggling, to stop them slipping through the cracks and letting the problem grow.

Private education and a place at a top university will stand you in good stead for finding employment, but it can’t guarantee happiness, and it’s certainly not more important than physical and mental wellbeing.