A dog’s bark tipped Sophie Lyons into a panic attack so severe that her family called an ambulance.
The 15-year-old has suffered fits of extreme anxiety which cause her to become paralysed and pass out.
She underwent brain scans to rule out epilepsy. Her anxiety was said by one doctor to be the worst he had ever seen.
Sophie went to two schools, and struggled to find a third which would accept her, before she joined Berry Street’s Navigator’s Program.
The Central Highlands-wide program helps young people aged 12 to 17 to re-engage with education.
Sophie is now in year 9 at Ballarat Secondary College’s Woodmans Hill Campus where just this week she received three academic awards – for textiles, photography and humanities.
It seemed like school and my life in general was becoming a lost hope.Sophie Lyons, 15
“The first really bad thing was I had fits when the panic attack would peak. I’d have a type of fit and then it went to just passing out in general.
“I had like a spider sense. If I was within two blocks of the school I’d start to get panicked and buildings that looked similar to that school, I’d start to get panicked and eventually came to the conclusion that change needed to be made.”
Her anxiety was triggered by years of bullying at primary and secondary school.
The bullying started at a grade 2 orientation day and went on for about six years, Sophie said.
“I was dreading going to school so much that the anxiety festered and that was probably for about six solid years every single day, from orientation day,” she said.
“It was full-on bullying the entire time and when I say full-on I meant psychological, being constantly excluded from everything, never being thought good enough.”
Before the Navigators Program Sophie said her options for education were “getting thinner and thinner”.
“Definitely before coming here to Berry Street, it seemed like school and my life in general was becoming a lost hope because I’d been to two of some of the best schools in Ballarat, so basically all my options were closed off.
“They really make you feel confident … like they had no doubt in their mind that I would go back to school again.”
The program was also a break through for Sophie’s mother, Fiona Lyons, who had been fighting for years to get teachers to understand the severity of her daughter’s anxiety.
“They just took all the pressure off us so I didn’t have to go in and bat for my child.”
Lifting pressure from young shoulders
Berry Street’s Navigator Program has seen 18 students return to education since the program began late last year, with a further five set to re-enroll in school next term. Funding announced in the state government’s May budget will extend the pilot program until December 2018 and has also allowed Berry Street to hire another case manager.
The program, with the support of Uniting Care and Ballarat and District Aboriginal Cooperative, works with up to 40 young people to get them back to school. About 170 young people in the Central Highlands are currently on the waiting list.
So many kids that come through Navigators have those underlying risk factors, that’s not their key problem. The case managers have to connect services that get to the underlying trauma and risk factors that young people suffered before they got hereBerry Street Western Region deputy director Warrick Remilton
Berry Street Western Region deputy director Warrick Remilton said the program relieved young people of the pressures they faced outside of school.
“When they’ve got those supports it frees up space in their head so they can build more effective relationships with their teachers and their peers.”
Young people in the program had often experienced mental illness, domestic violence, neglect or abuse. Navigators also connects the young person’s family with support services.
“What’s highlighted in Navigators is drug and alcohol and youth justice are presented as the problem and they’re really symptoms of vulnerability.
“So many kids that come through Navigators have those underlying risk factors, that’s not their key problem.
“The case managers have to connect services that get to the underlying trauma and risk factors that young people suffered before they got here.”
Buninyong MP Geoff Howard said every young person deserved support for their future.
“We know that if there are vulnerable young people out there there’s two ways they can go,” he said.
“They can either get the support they need to have a good future or the alternative is they go down an antisocial path that doesn't help them or the community.”