TW: Anxiety, OCD.
@mugamnesty’s #MadCovidDiaries 4.2.2020
In early July 2010 I was finishing my first year at a new school. It wasn’t a big school and I’d been glad to leave my previous one (a private girls’ school rife with bitchiness and disordered eating). I’d been fortunate enough to secure a place at the new school and was happy to be there, but I was seriously considering killing myself. I was 14.
When my family and I selected the school we didn’t know what we were getting into. We knew the reputation of the place (excellent) but not the history (dodgy) and on paper it basically looked fine. Several years later however, all hell broke loose at school as allegations of child sexual abuse emerged. I consider myself extremely fortunate to not have been a victim of sexual or physical abuse, and it’s on this basis that I’ve always assumed what I did suffer at school “doesn’t count” as trauma.
When I was 14, I was suicidal because I was being bullied. I’d been systematically targeted for months by a group of my peers who criticised my every move, played tricks on me and spread nasty rumours. This was fuelled by two teachers. I was routinely humiliated and pushed to my absolute limits. Staying home was not an option, and the circumstances under which I attended this particular school are complex. I had no option other than to deal with it until the summer holidays. Things got worse each day and culminated in my walking out of class, hiding in a store room sobbing and then being gaslighted by a vindictive teacher who wanted me to know just what a shitty person I was. Several days later I admitted to my mum that I was considering jumping in front of a train.
Fitting into a social group is one of the most basic human needs. We have a need to belong, to interact with others, and to be treated with love and kindness. We want to physically be with others but formation of any social group results in an inevitable pecking order whereby there’s always somebody at the bottom.
In poultry, the pecking order is defined by birds physically pecking each other into submission in order for a hierarchy to be formed. When a pecking order is applied to humans (and differences in gender, sexuality, race, class and health are added) it’s a recipe for disaster – but unlike chickens, humans are capable of empathy, love, tolerance and respect. Trouble arises when these wonderful qualities are overpowered by unreliable leadership and/or an unstable society where each is out for their own.
In the UK, school bullying is treated societally as an ‘it happens to everybody’ problem. Bullying ‘happening to everyone’ is not inaccurate. The vast majority of us can recall at least some nasty behaviour at school and if it didn’t happen to us we either witnessed it or were the perpetrators. Tales from parents and grandparents include (at best) heads shoved down toilets and nasty pranks played on unsuspecting students, whilst stereotypes of school nerds, ‘fat’ kids and loners seem to have been around since time began and are well represented in media and books. Despite its ubiquitous nature the common response to bullying is to “ignore it” amid claims of “it’ll toughen you up.” Works for some, but isn’t this ultimately more damaging?
Dealing with bullying is an incredibly difficult job for schools. Supporting victims, investigating incidents AND understanding the psychology of a kid that harasses others is a mammoth task. An even bigger problem is that bullying does not exclude the grown-ups. Just because a school has an anti-bullying policy doesn’t necessarily mean that bad behaviour is appropriately dealt with or that the wellbeing and welfare of students are protected. In plenty of cases teachers either egg on classroom bullies or become bullies themselves.
My school specialised in teachers who enjoyed power trips. This ranged from a teacher who still shags fifteen year old girls, and the music teacher who would competitively pit her students against each other. I spent all of Year 11 being taunted by the physics teacher who repeatedly insisted (in class) that I fancied one of the boys. One of my sixth form teachers was having a public affair with another member of staff, and when I queried this member of staff (on a separate matter) several pieces of my A Level coursework were mysteriously marked down. I was mocked by staff from day one and was certainly not the only victim.
Over time the toxic environment and ineffectual leadership of the school came into question – not only from parents and students but from outsiders as well. Somehow those accused absolved themselves of responsibility. Public psychological torture of eleven year olds was a key attribute of one teacher, but it was fine because she was good at her job. Sex with minors was fine, because the previous head teacher did it. There was always someone higher up who had done something worse. Even when police were involved teachers played dead, covered each other’s backs and put the blame on the person at the bottom of the pecking order.
Erode basic leadership and it’s no wonder that kids form their own dodgy hierarchies reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Hate from teachers invites hate from students. Throughout school I was the weird one; a nerd with an outspoken immigrant parent. From day one until the end of sixth form I was intimidated, mocked, ostracized, physically assaulted, publicly humiliated, threatened and hassled online. I was gaslighted by the teachers who were supposed to help and told that my Aspergic tendencies and sensitivity made me an easy target.
The long term effects of school bullying are well documented. According to the BMJ, those who suffer school bullying are at greater risk of physical illness, anxiety, depression, and in some cases self-harm or suicide. Any victim of bullying (however minor) is likely to suffer from low confidence and perhaps a drop in academic performance. My academic attainment suffered, and I still assume people are taking the piss out of me when they’re not. If I’m honest, a lockdown and doing school from home would have been my dream several years ago!
Bullying never goes away. It’s not unique to schools – you hear about it in workplaces and communities. Particular social groups are more at risk – especially with our current government’s insistence to neglect the most vulnerable in a global pandemic. There’s also no other way to describe the coercion and personal attacks that mental health teams thrust upon their unsuspecting patients. Bullying itself isn’t technically a criminal offence, but in some cases it should be. Seems that if someone’s mental state is in any kind of question, all hell breaks loose and there’s a pile on to see who can manipulate and mislead the fastest.
Bullying is an overlooked trauma. It doesn’t ‘sound’ bad because it happens to huge numbers of people. It doesn’t ‘look’ bad because it pales in comparison to incidents such as violence, rape, catastrophic accidents and war. It’s seen as a first world problem; if you’re lucky enough to have a good education/employment then it’s best to just suck it up.
We have a social obligation to understand that bullying culture is downright dangerous – even if nothing dramatic occurs. I’ve used the stories from my school because it’s an (extreme) example of how, even in small sections of society, giving the wrong people power can ruin and potentially end lives. There were some fantastic teachers and students at my school. They did a lot to help me through before they all left, but were vastly undermined and outnumbered by perverted adults who used their power to sow discord and spread hate.
I am ashamed of why and how I was bullied at school. I was embarrassed because I thought that nothing ‘actually bad’ had happened to me yet I was still terribly traumatised. It took several mental breakdowns to talk about what had happened and to deal with it. I’ve done all that, and I still feel like a privileged fraud writing this because “it’s just a bit of bullying.”
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