We need a compassionate view of school refusal and urgent reform

15 August 2023

My daughter refused to go to school for a year and for our family there was no simple quick-fix solution.

I have listened to people say it's the parent's fault and that ‘tough love’ is needed; a view often held by school staff themselves. And I suspect there might be more talk like this as the community and educators digest the findings of the Senate inquiry into the national trend of school refusal and related matters. I am here to tell you no matter how good your parenting skills – you cannot force an anxious child to be mentally well enough to make it to the classroom.  

Life experience has painfully taught me that school refusal from children experiencing anxiety is not a choice, and getting anxious children back into the classroom can be a complex, gut-wrenching, long-haul journey.  

Data from the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting authority tells us that high numbers of children are struggling to attend school due to anxiety about re-engaging in the classroom after pandemic lockdowns and school closures. But the reality is that regular school attendance was in decline prior to the pandemic, according to the Productivity Commission’s Review of the National School Reform Agreement interim report.   

When my daughter fell sick with anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) several years ago, she was unable to attend school, desperately missing her friends, classes and extra-curricular activities and utterly shattered. She wanted to be at school, and I wanted her to attend, but anxiety doesn’t care how much a parent pleads, cajoles or implores.   

I left paid work to care for her and we bounced around the fragmented mental health system for months until she had the right practitioner and treatment. I also sought professional help, and thankfully found a mental health care nurse who expertly coached me on how to help my child.   

Every morning I would wake my beautiful girl and she would valiantly try. We both used the safe, evidenced-based strategies we’d been taught in an atmosphere of love and hope. Despite tremendous effort to face her greatest fears, some days she didn’t make it to school, some days she was late, some days she attended only to call me a few hours later in distress and ask me to pick her up. Yet some days she succeeded.    

Some teachers were immediately supportive, others were willing to engage, but sadly others chose to harshly judge a situation that they clearly didn’t understand.   

We ploughed on like this for about a year until regular school attendance was re-established, and then managed recurring bouts of illness throughout the remaining several years of her secondary school education. Unfortunately, I had to fight many battles to ensure my daughter could access her education on a level playing field with her non-anxious peers.  

It didn’t need to be so hard. 

I encourage every school to consider joining Beyond Blue’s Be You program as a starting point for improvement. Launched in 2018, Be You is designed to support early learning services and schools to develop positive, inclusive and resilient learning communities where everyone—children, young people, teachers and families—can achieve their best possible mental health. It can specifically help teachers to intervene early and respond to school refusal. 

My daughter’s graduation day was pure joy, and when her university acceptance arrived everything seemed to have finally fallen into place. My daughter was one of the lucky ones.   

But our brave new ‘living with COVID’ world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for many people and the mental health system is failing to meet high post-pandemic community demand, continuing to be unable to provide treatment for both children and adults where and when they need it. The system is at its worst performance in regional and remote areas. Costs for patients and their families have ballooned, particularly following the reduction by half in Better Access Medicare-subsidised appointments. 

As long as the system languishes in desperate need of reform like this, not only will children refuse to attend school due to anxiety, but everyone with a mental health condition and their families will pay a hefty price. Please, bring on long-awaited Federal Government reform. 


Lisa Corrigan is a community representative volunteering with Beyond Blue and a Lived Experience Advisor at the Royal Children’s Hospital  


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