Asher McEldrew confidently says their favourite subjects are maths and writing. The seven-year-old wants to be a vet when they grow up.
But the fact that the year 2 student even gets out of bed and wants to go to school, after years of tears, yelling and fighting, still amazes their mother.
“This is just a different person,” says mum, Bec McEldrew, as Asher chats away with cameras rolling.
Until recently, Asher has been suffering from school refusal, a manifestation of anxiety.
It can range from reluctance to, as mental health social worker John Chellew describes it, kids “going on strike”.
“In fact, they’re locked down in their bedrooms and not coming out.”
Repeated lockdowns result in cumulative anxiety
And it seems more kids than ever are suffering.
There’s increasing evidence to say repeated lockdowns result in cumulative anxiety, creating a wholly new group of school refusers.
Part of the problem is that there is little hard data on the extent of school refusal. But reports from the frontline paint a grim picture.
John Chellew says referrals to his Bayside School Refusal Clinic have tripled during the pandemic.
Monash Health, Victoria’s largest health service, has seen a 40 per cent jump in referrals for children’s psychological issues, including school refusal, both in inpatient and outpatient numbers, over the course of the pandemic.
Head of Monash Health’s Early In Life unit, associate professor Michael Gordon, says he’s seeing a new cohort of kids refusing school: “Kids who were actually already anxious, but the momentum of going [to school] was getting them going.”
“It’s a bit like a car,” Dr Gordon says.
Absenteeism a ‘bigger problem’ this year
Victoria’s Children and Young People Commissioner Liana Buchanan says the most recent results from the Commission for Children and Young People survey of how kids are feeling in the pandemic is showing the “worst results” during this month’s lockdown.
She says it’s been overwhelming to read things like: “I hate remote learning and my childhood being taken away.”
“I wish school stayed even when there is a lockdown. I can wear a mask.” — quote from CCYP survey
Ms Buchanan says the state government is aware that it is a bigger problem in 2021.
“My understanding is that the government’s data shows that for some groups of children, some cohorts, absenteeism is indeed significantly higher this year,” Ms Buchanan says.
While Victoria’s four lockdowns make its kids the most vulnerable, Dr Gordon says “it’s going to be a nationwide challenge, as it will be across the world”.
And these experts suggest the growing body of evidence of cumulative harm to kids should tip the thinking about the risks and benefits of shutting down schools during lockdown.
“I think we need to be more sophisticated in terms of how we do things and a bit nuanced rather than an all-or-nothing, sledgehammer-to-a-walnut kind of approach,” Dr Gordon says.
“So when clever people are sitting around a table [deciding on lockdowns], there should be a representative from other aspects like mental health to be saying, ‘Look, that there is another side of this.'”
‘I was at my wit’s end’
Asher squeals with delight as John Chellew demonstrates a new trick with his furry colleague, Max, on a crisp and sunny winter day at a park in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of St Kilda.
This is a typical outdoor counselling session for Asher, part of what Mr Chellew calls his “walk and talk” style of exposure therapy.
A toy drone, scooter, totem tennis pole, art and fitness sessions are all part of his toolkit.
“The park is ground zero for kids,” Mr Chellew says.
Ms McEldrew says as soon as a pediatrician mentioned Mr Chellew’s sessions involved a dog, Asher was hooked.
She says Asher’s separation anxiety had started a couple of years before the pandemic but that this year is “by far the worst”, and she almost has had to drag Asher into school.
“I was at my wit’s end. I had no other strategies left,” she says.
But Ms McEldrew says the outdoor sessions, along with medication, have in just a few weeks helped turn things around.
Asher says earlier the thought of going to school made them think, “Mum would not come back, and I would miss her.”
Now, it’s different.
“She’s going to come back. And if I think about something else, then I won’t miss her,” they say.
Shortage of mental health experts exacerbates problems
Kerry Milligan teaches art to kids in the clinic’s school holiday program.
She believes kids who are anxious should be eligible to attend school during lockdown and wants more alternative educational settings for those struggling with school refusal.
“There just aren’t enough alternative settings. It’s all mainstream,” Ms Milligan says.
“It’s very hard to get kids into alternative settings because they’re so rare.”
Ms McEldrew worries for the parents who don’t have the means to pay upfront counselling fees and for culturally and linguistically diverse parents and families of children with disabilities.
And then there’s the shortage of mental health practitioners.
Ms McEldrew says she found dozens of other school refusal experts had waiting lists of six months or more or had closed their books altogether.
Dr Gordon says, despite state and federal government moves to boost the sector, “you can’t train a child psychiatrist overnight”.
“So it’ll be a manpower issue,” he says.
“We’ve got borders closed, so you can’t bring people from interstate. You can’t bring people from overseas, and therefore, there are only so many people that we currently have.
And Dr Gordon says that’s a problem because the key to recovery is to get kids treated as quickly as possible.
The stakes are high.
For anyone who thinks school refusal just poses a problem for exam results, Dr Gordon says the evidence about long-term implications is clear and disturbing.
“You don’t die. But gosh, there’s a real major issue in the future.”
Calls for more nuanced approach to schools in future lockdowns
What’s only now becoming clear is the effect of repeated lockdowns on children’s mental health.
“It was really hard at school because of COVID, so I dropped out” — quote from CCYP survey
Ms Buchanan says going through the survey, it’s been “actually overwhelming to hear and read from them the extent to which their mental health is impacted”.
“Lots of children, young people, talking about anxiety, talking about depression, talking about feeling isolated and sad,” she says.
“And many talking about what they experienced last year, and feeling like they’ve been pushed back into it.”
She says the children’s mental health seems to be worsening.
“So that in itself tells me that something about [this past] lockdown and the impact of each of the lockdowns, and being dragged back into where children and young people had felt they were last year, that was particularly negative for them.”
Ms Buchanan says she’d like to see a more nuanced approach to shutting schools.
“I hope that we can find ways to deal with the spread of infection to stop the spread of COVID without these blanket school closures or moves to remote learning because the impact that children tell me it has on them is enormous,” she says.
Dr Gordon puts it bluntly: “There’s only so much that you can become hopeful where you kind of get knocked down again. So every time it becomes harder to go back.”
“Don’t shut schools again” —quote from CCYP survey
He fears there are many more kids who are hiding their levels of anxiety.
“I think we’re going to see this for a number of years,” Dr Gordon says.
“We’ll be looking back and wondering, maybe we could have done things a bit better, in hindsight.”
In the meantime, both Ms Buchanan and Dr Gordon would like to see schools take a more proactive role. And, as always, just having an engaged parent who can recognise their kid’s growing anxiety is key.