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The Brisbane school where just getting out of the car can be the biggest step

Opinion

All children have the right to learn and one Queensland school is ensuring students with complex mental health needs get the education they deserve, writes Rebecca Levingston

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The difference between a school break-up and a breakdown seems too simple when written.

Up and down – short words to describe the moods of a teenager where the days (and sometimes the years) seem long. The mental health rollercoaster that families ride is joked about in most school circles, but for some it plays out with euphoric highs and dangerous lows.

This week as school breaks up, report cards and end-of-year parties will be on the agenda for most Queensland kids. Fun and relief as the year wraps up and rightly so. Those milestones are wonderful and deserve bowls of Cheezels and chocolates for teachers.

What happens when your child can’t or won’t go to school? Anxiety, depression and other severe mental health disorders that are debilitating for children can end school days prematurely. Permanently disengaging from education is life-changing. In the saddest of cases, opting out of school and society can be life-ending. Children need love and time and treatment. They still deserve to learn. There is a place.

I remember that the first time I heard about the Barrett Adolescent Centre it was about to be shut down. Barrett was the first school of its kind in Queensland, catering to the needs of students with chronic mental health issues. The small cohort was the subject of intense political debate when it was closed in 2013.

What I didn’t know is that the school continued in a new form, at a new location. It has quietly carried on providing classrooms and care for young people with complex needs. Barrett is a place that no one wants to go to until there is nowhere else to go. And then it can be a sanctuary for families.

Stella told me her son wouldn’t be alive without the patient expertise of the team at Barrett. His transition from a quirky stickler for rules with wit and beautiful manners to a young man wanting to end his life was swift and devastating. He refused to go to school. He was hallucinating.

It was as though the world became too much for him. He was barely a teenager when he withdrew completely. Assistance from mental health professionals helped stabilise him. The way his mum described it to me is that he was finally able to “quieten his mind”. Then when it was time to find his way back to school, he found his place at Barrett. Stella is optimistic about the future but realistic about the past: “Without that school, I wouldn’t have my son.”

For some young people, the prospect of getting out of the car to go into school is daunting. It can become impossible. School refusal can last for months.

That was the torment for Kerry and her child for more than six months. Too unwell to attend mainstream school, but not “sick” enough to be admitted to a mental health facility, the family was left in a frightening limbo with limited options.

Again, the support and connection of the health and education team at Barrett became a lifeline that ultimately led Kerry’s child on a pathway to university. An outcome that seemed so out of reach a few years ago.

Barrett Adolescent Centre is a unique place, that one by one is helping young people keep connected to education. The Queensland Human Rights Commission advocates that every child has the right to primary and secondary schooling appropriate to the child’s needs.

This year, on the day after school finishes, the world will mark International Human Rights Day.  Seems an apt time to celebrate every child and the teachers who find ways to connect.

Farewell to 2020 for the majority of Queensland students is fun and so it should be. School captains are announced and academic achievements are rightly celebrated.

But here’s to the families who got through school in their own way, at their own pace, without pedestals and fanfare.  Here’s to sometimes just getting out of the car.

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