Mental Health Week: Experiences at a Catholic girls’ school

TW: Self harm and mentions of suicide

Jess Baxter speaks to girls from her old school about the lack of mental health support and climate of oppressive sexism

Reported cases of young people experiencing mental health problems are on the rise, but only amongst young women. More than one in three girls suffer from anxiety or depression, a figure that has risen 10% in the last decade, whereas these mental health problems have actually fallen in boys to less than one in six cases of anxiety or depression.

Tabloids are calling it a ‘slow-growing epidemic’ and the ‘silent epidemic’, and I wonder whether this is a modern reincarnation of Betty Friedan’s statement, ‘The Problem That Has No Name’.

That’s not to say depression and anxiety is more rife in girls than it is in boys, it simply means more cases of it are reported amongst girls. Boys may feel unable to get help because of lack of resources or awareness, or perhaps it may seem emasculating to talk about for their psychological distress or ‘feelings’ to peers, parents or teachers, and consequently will put off the chance to get help until having already reached their breaking point.

Either way, we can’t fully trust these statistics to tell us if girls are more likely than boys to experience mental health problems, or vice versa.

But thinking about those reports that have hit the headlines earlier this year, the worst memories of my high-achieving, single sex, Catholic school come to mind. The girl with cut wrists I saw washing her hands in the school toilets, the suicide attempts of a close friend, and numerous cases of eating disorders and anxiety that have prevailed even through to university. I am thinking that this can’t possibly be a normal school experience.

I spoke to some of the girls I went to school with about their experiences and thoughts on mental health while at a school which, I think, prioritised academic achievement and religious ideology over mental health support. This is what they had to say.

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‘You literally had to go to them [pastoral care], like crying your eyes out, in order to receive any kind of support. It wasn’t the religion that was the problem – I’m still Catholic, but only because my mum is a positive influence where that’s concerned. It’s more how the school presented it. And honestly, being there made my mental health go so downhill because it was such a suppressive, negative atmosphere.’

‘From an early age we segregated ourselves into a rigid social hierarchy which showed remarkably little fluidity. Unspoken rules dictated that you didn’t make friends from well outside your social strata, and those at the top dictated most interactions. To this day, I am anxious around those I perceive as cooler than me, struggling with the notion that ultimately they have no interest in talking to me. However, speaking to friends at mixed schools suggests that our experiences were very similar. Nonetheless, the environment of uncertainty and distrust – never knowing who was talking behind your back – I do see as having been exacerbated by attending an all-girls school.’

‘There was no kind of support system in place for mental health at this school. It was a lot like “you’re just sad, there’s nothing wrong”, which is so destructive because that’s the age you really need help so you don’t keep falling deeper and deeper into mental illness. The all-girls/anti-sex thing just pushed me towards being dependent on someone abusive for support because I felt the complete opposite of a strong and independent woman. And then that worsened – I was diagnosed with chronic clinical depression and severe anxiety in my first year of uni, which will probably never go. I don’t blame my school for my issues at all, I think it’s part family and part how I was generally susceptible to depression but I think they did nothing to help me even when I went to them for help. They could have prevented a lot of negative things.’

‘I am totally incapable of asking men for help with learning now, like admitting to them I don’t understand or know how to do something. I don’t know if this can be entirely blamed on all girls’ education.’

‘I definitely think my mental health problems I’m currently facing have roots in my time at an all girls’ catholic school. I suffered with eating disorders when I was there, problems which were definitely exacerbated by how vicious teenage girls can be and the intense and claustrophobic environment. I’m now living with depression and while it only cropped up in the last year or so I feel the roots really are in my time at school. I definitely wouldn’t pin it all on those experiences though, and it’s hard to separate whether it was the school’s strictness, hard-line Catholic nature or the all girls’ environment. However, I do think it’s telling that the majority of my sister’s friendship group from the same school now all suffer from a variety of mental health problems.’

‘My secondary school is not equipped to deal with or understand or even be sympathetic to invisible illnesses. I also got told to take off charity pins because they weren’t a Christian charity, so we never do anything like a Red Nose Day event because the charity is pro-choice. I feel it is very isolating from the outside world. I do feel like the all-girls experience did nothing to prepare us for any sort of relationship with men, whether it’s friendship or romantic, and the idolisation of male teachers by younger students says a lot about that.’

‘I feel like if I didn’t have my strong group of friends for support, I wouldn’t have got any from anywhere else. We were taught that sex was dirty and if we did it, so were we. Two girls were told off once for holding hands in the corridor.’

‘Not having a single sex-ed or consent class, and only having a pro-virginity Christian youth group give a talk in Year 12, meant that there was only one voice on the subject. And that voice was sexist, restraining and destructive to the self-worth of girls who were already sexually active at this point.’

This absolutely breaks my heart. Those girls, all of whom are incredibly important to me, have psychologically and emotionally suffered in one way or another with thoughts of low self-worth, which undoubtedly has roots in the experience of a single-sex, single-religion school.

Though there is an uncertainty regarding exactly where these mental health problems came from, as is always the case with invisible illnesses, the general consensus is that going to a school like this impacts your opinion of yourself, your body, how you act around boys, how you think about your sexuality, and how you interact with other girls. All of this and you’re 14 years old.

Words and image by Jess Baxter

This piece is part of our series of Mental Health Week articles. For more information about student counselling and mental health support at the University of Bristol, please visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students-health/services/mental-health/

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