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by Andrea M. Darcy
Sent off to board as a child? And find yourself with issues as an adult that you struggle to get to the bottom of? The two might be highly connected. A boarding school survivor can find themselves with distinct symptoms now called ‘boarding school syndrome’.
What is boarding school syndrome?
Boarding school syndrome is not an official diagnosis. But it is a useful shorthand now used by mental health professionals that refers to a set of symptoms common in adult ex-boarders.
The conversation around boarding school trauma in the UK can be traced to psychotherapist Nick Duffel, who coined the term ‘boarding school survivors’. Himself an ex boarder, and recognising a distinct set of struggles in himself and others, he went on to form an organisation of the same name in 1990. The goals of Boarding School Survivors is to raise public awareness, offer help to other survivors, and provide specialist training for mental health professionals.
His work was expanded on by psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, who did not herself attend boarding school but worked with many clients who had been sent as young children. She coined the term ‘boarding school syndrome’ in a paper she published in 2011 in the British Journal of Psychotherapy. It is also the title of the book she put out in 2015, where she dives in depth into the trauma of the ‘privileged’ child.
But wasn’t I lucky to go to boarding school?
You might have boarding school to thank for an outwardly successful adult life. But if inwardly you feel empty, and struggle to connect to others or feel anything at all? Then there might have been a hidden price.
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Boarding school can mean access to a high quality education, a well-connected lifestyle, and lifelong friendships. And for some students, who didn’t have a happy home life, boarding school was a good experience. It presented them with stability, safety, and friends.
But it’s not helpful to feel that just because others enjoyed boarding, or you enjoyed it part of the time, you aren’t allowed to also see how boarding school was in other ways traumatic. The truth is that for many children, being sent away registered in their brain as an abandonment and a trauma. And that for others, boarding school might have started out happy but ended up a place they were bullied or abused.
Symptoms of boarding school trauma
Symptoms of boarding school trauma manifest as relating and intimacy issues, identity struggles, self-esteem problems, control issues, and general mental health struggles.
“In order to adapt to the system, a defensive and protective encapsulation of the self may be acquired; the true identity of the person then remains hidden. This pattern distorts intimate relationships and may continue into adult life.” Joy Schaverien
The relating issues of boarding school trauma can be attachment issues (things that affect the way we connect and bond to others). These can stem from feeling abandoned by your parents.
Relating problems can also be related to the rigid environment the schools can present. It can be a place where emotions are frowned on, you have no privacy but are constantly monitored, and are judged and compared by the other students.
Symptoms can look like:
Identity issues in boarding school survivors
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Children who are traumatised can first of all blame themselves, and then ‘cut off’ their feelings. This can lead to creating a false persona, a ‘survival’ self. Which can look like hiding any feelings that would see you judged as ‘weak’ or a ‘sissy’. In some it manifests as becoming an overachiever to hide weakness, or the school clown, or even becoming a bully.
Identity issues can also arise if you were from a different background, culture, race, or sexuality to those at your school or in your school clique.
Another way identity issues can form is if we are fed one narrative as a child that does not match the reality we then live in. We learn to doubt ourselves. For example, if you are constantly told you are a loved and lucky child, by the very parents who then shipped you off and left you feeling they wanted little to do with you.
Symptoms here can look like:
A child who feels abandoned or rejected will blame himself, leading to long-term self-esteem issues. Otherwise confidence issues from boarding school can arise from being picked on, or from the competitive nature of the boarding school social hierarchies. Symptoms can look like:
Boarding school is a very controlled environment. What you eat, what times you sleep, what you wear, things that other children have at least partial choice over, might have been out of your hands. Privacy was limited.
This has led some boarding school survivors to report symptoms like:
Mental health struggles in boarding school survivors
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Anxiety and depression are common symptoms of trauma. And being ripped out of the family home and dumped at school is certainly traumatic for some children. Even more so if you were bullied or psychologically, physically, or sexually abused.
Trauma also often comes hand-in-hand with addictions and substance abuse, as you try to block the uncomfortable thoughts and painful feelings inside.
And workaholism is a common issue among boarding school survivors. The competition and rigour of the workplace can feel familiar or even comforting. And it creates the perfect place to hide from the stressors of other people’s expectations, and your own inner turmoil.
Women and boarding school trauma
Another point being raised by boarding school survivor charities is that the issue has been focused on male survivors, overlooking the unique issues women can have. This is particularly true as boarding schools were originally for males and are patriarchal institutions. Women survivors speak of feeling like it’s weak to be too ‘feminine’.
Who can help me if I am a boarding school survivor?
The good news is that boarding school trauma is getting more and more attention as more people speak up and share their experiences. There are now counsellors, coaches, and psychotherapists who specialise in boarding school syndrome.
There are also two organisations who offer resources and support here in the UK:
Are you a boarding school survivor? We offer a team of highly regarded expert therapists who can help with boarding school syndrome. Our main offices are on Harley Street and we can also offer appointments in the City of London, at London Bridge, or online.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert writer with training in person-centred therapy. She has written thousands of articles and is particularly interested in childhood trauma. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy