‘It was soul-sucking’: What can Finlaey’s story tell us about ‘school refusal’?

Written by Holly Thompson

In year 11, West Australian private school student Finlaey Hewlett was struggling to attend class, even though she desperately wanted to learn.

Midway through year 12, her school asked her to leave.

Now 22, Hewlett thrives working within mental health and disability activism, including with the Youth Affairs Council of WA, and said all she had needed to succeed was someone to believe in her.

That belief did not come from her school.

Hewlett is part of a growing cohort of students who feel they physically cannot go to school even though they want too – now defined as “school refusal”.

She was passionate about her studies but also struggled with her mental health, including anxiety and depression, from a young age. Midway through year 11, she began finding it difficult to get out of bed.

“It was soul-sucking … I wanted to learn, and it really frustrated me that I couldn’t just get up and go like everyone else. It made me feel like a failure for something that wasn’t really within my control,” Hewlett said.

The signs she was struggling were clear to her school, Hewlett said, where she was also being bullied, but there was a lack of understanding and knowledge on how to help.

She also struggled to get support at home, as her mother was a single parent who worked most of the time to make ends meet.

Hewlett managed to make it through the year with good grades. But by year 12, left without any intervention, things were getting worse.

“It just got to the point where I just couldn’t go – it’d be a miracle if I could go down the street to the corner store to go get some milk and bread let alone show up to a full day of learning,” she said.

Halfway through the year she was approached by the school and asked to leave.

“It was heartbreaking because I just needed someone to believe in me. I needed someone to understand how my brain works, that it works differently,” she said.

“I felt so frustrated and there are so many years of shame that I am trying to unlearn.”

Hewlett believed being asked to leave had a lot to do with the school wanting to look good when ATAR scores were released, noting others – particularly those in the neurodivergent community – had experienced similar requests.

“I think young people are so often shoehorned into ATAR because those scores are what makes schools look good, and then they are made to feel like a failure if they can’t keep up. Schools are run like a business,” Hewlett said.

Hewlett, who was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at 20, said more needed to be done to address the growing problem of school refusals by helping children who thought differently while they were still in school.

recent parliamentary inquiry into school refusals recommended education ministers develop a national action plan, and develop a nationally accepted definition of “school refusal”, as well as a nationally consistent way of recording the reasons for absences.

Research has also shown intervention is less likely to be effective when non-attendance has persisted for more than two years.

In an effort to help identify issues early Orygen – an advocacy group for youth mental health – launched new resources aimed at schools and mental health professionals as well as parents.

One is a checklist of potential early warning signs students might display both at home and school, including unexplained absences, often running late, decreased participation in class, excessive screen time and tearfulness or becoming clingy before school.

Orygen research translation chief, Professor Rosemary Purcell, said the start of the school year could be a particularly daunting time, as students encountered significant changes such as new teachers, classmates and schools.

“Not only can school refusal have a significant impact on a young person’s learning, development and health, but it can also take a significant toll on the family unit, with parents reporting feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and guilt,” she said.

“These guidelines offer ways of identifying young people at risk, and those experiencing school refusal.”