How I found ways to deal with a difficult start to secondary school

Starting secondary school during a pandemic was tough for Alice but despite challenges, they learned to speak up and seek help on their mental health journey.

Written by Alice

Last Updated: Apr-16-24


Back in 2019 while I was still in primary school, I couldn’t wait to start secondary school. I would be starting in a secondary school where I wasn’t going to know a lot of people. I saw this as an opportunity for a new me, a fresh start and maybe even a chance to break out of the “goody two shoes” mould years of bullying had placed upon me. Maybe even be cool and popular for once.

Navigating the transition from primary to secondary school

I remember going to the open day of my current secondary school in sixth class. It never would have crossed my mind that a year into the future I would be starting in a new school, meeting new people with half my face covered with a mask after a summer of barely getting to see or talk to anyone. I also did not realise how it would have such an impact on what I wanted to be a fresh start.

I never could have predicted how big of a toll secondary school would take on my mental health throughout the years. I never wanted it to be like that. But as much as a struggle it’s been, it has also helped me to grow and develop and so far I’m glad to have gotten through those bad experiences and survived.

Starting first year at the height of the pandemic

I still remember my first day. Walking into a big building with a shimmery backpack, a baggy jumper and a blue surgical mask. But I still had so much hope and I was excited.

I liked the idea of everything, it never crossed my mind how hard it would be to get close to people because you physically couldn’t. As soon as we went in, we were hit with the extreme and sometimes ridiculous regulations that were put into place to keep us all from getting sick.

Coping with isolation and distancing measures

In school now, we go to different rooms for each different subject but in first year we were confined to a base classroom with our form. One room we had to stay in where a majority of our subjects were taught to us. The only subject that we could leave the classroom for was science. Our desks were completely spaced out like how they’d be in exams.

All I remember was having very little choice but to sit in the classroom at lunch, surrounded by people but not really talking to anyone. I’d watch other people talking to everyone, how easy it was for them. That’s what I wanted and it just wasn’t happening for me. It was like there were people that were still able to thrive and I was struggling to talk to new people. I was really shy and quiet, I only made two new friends and gravitated towards the quieter girls, people who I felt were easier to talk to.

I was having social anxiety issues. I’m sure it was like that and worse for a lot of people starting first year at the time but we never really got much of a chance to mix with anyone outside our form, to get exposure to more people in the same position as you.

To me, this felt like the end of the world. This was not the way I wanted first year to go. I wanted to go in there and click with everyone, talk to everyone and just absolutely love every minute of it and it wasn’t like that at all. It was killing me, I thought my social anxiety issues were never going to go away and I told nobody.

Then, a second lockdown hit and we had to be stuck inside all over again. Maybe that made matters worse but looking back on it now I think I needed it. I needed a break from feeling anxious about talking to people. It wasn’t the easiest lockdown and I felt sad for a lot of it of course but I saw my friends from time to time and I got to like the routine of online schooling.

Shortly before I went back in April after that lockdown ended I saw it as another fresh start. This time I wasn’t going to be shy and I was going to make more of an effort to talk to people this time.

Seeking help and finding strength

When I came back things weren’t exactly going the way I wished them to, I started to feel sad again and was struggling with my anxiety. Then things got serious and my parents found out and had to seek professional help for me.

Once I got it out in the open things got better. I was feeling happier in myself after speaking about it and on my way to getting the help that I needed. I was referred to Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) who met with me and made some recommendations, one of them being that I should receive counselling which I started at the beginning of second year.

Talking to my Mam and Dad was important because it made me feel like it was okay to get sad sometimes. Moving forward I was able to talk about my emotions. Towards the end of first year, I may have felt happier but it didn’t mean I was better even though I probably liked to think that I was better. I still had my issues and my insecurities at the end of the day. Over the summer, I did a music camp which got me back into playing the piano. Music had always been a love of mine but I had stopped for a few years.

Mean girls, bullying, and the importance of letting go

Going into second year I wanted to turn over another new leaf, as a lot of people that age did. I got in with a mean group of girls because I felt what was missing from my life was a solid group that I had things in common with. I never knew they were going to be mean, that’s not why I befriended them I just thought they were the right fit. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, I wasn’t thinking straight enough to see all the obvious red flags.

I only got attention from these girls for all the wrong reasons. I even let them mess with some of my most valuable friendships, people I should’ve valued more than them. They often used me as the butt of their jokes and it wasn’t long until the stuff they were saying started to hurt me. Eventually, they went too far and cyberbullied me in our group chat. We went to the school about it and after that, I stopped talking to most of them and I was then isolated from the group.

School was extremely hard after that. I had to go in with nobody to talk to because the people I used to talk to all the time hated me. I had one best friend who I made going into first year who stuck around and made school easier. She used to always be out sick and was still friends with the people who bullied me so for a lot of it I was on my own.

It was early 2022 so COVID was still around and I was still stuck in that same base classroom with those same people and I hated it. This was even worse than what I went through in first year. I cried all the time at home and in school in the bathrooms. It was the loneliest time and things got worse. With the help of my counsellor, I was able to get through it. I had no choice but to pick up the pieces and try and make new friends even though that was hard.

Luckily there was one girl who my year head probably asked to be friends with me because of what I was going through. She was in a different form to me but because of her I never had to sit by myself. She’s now one of my closest friends.

As I was gaining one new friend I was slowly losing an old one even though it took me a long time to realise. My best friend who I had since first year just always seemed to let me down when I needed her the most and was moving away from me. She didn’t want to be on the outside looking in with me, the one nobody liked. By the end of second year she chose my ex-friend group over me.

She wanted to talk to them more and she even stopped sitting with me at lunch to go sit with them instead. I finished an emotional year,  hurt and betrayed by my so-called best friend but I just had to let her go.  At least I had my other friend who was worth investing more of my time in.

Finding confidence and hope through personal growth

I needed to get away for a while. Far far away from my small, entrapped town and a few months before the summer, I decided I wanted to go to the Gaeltacht. I was planning on going with my old best friend but she of course backed out. I decided to go on my own. It was a big risk given how hard the past year was. How was I going to go to the Gaeltacht and try to make friends after a year of struggling with friends?

My parents were anxious for me, I was excited because I loved the idea of being miles away from all my issues back home and the summer so far hadn’t been easy. So I went, two hours away from home for three weeks.

The three weeks I spent away from home weren’t easy. I was homesick and there was that slight anxiety I had with people after the type of year I had. But I had a nice time and met nice people.

I didn’t get overly close with anyone but making connections with such nice people again made me open and social. I then came back happier, open and ready to branch out for more new, nicer friends in third year. I saw my counsellor and she was happy with me and felt I had made great progress and she felt that I didn’t need any more sessions in the future.

From loneliness to building supportive friendships in third year

My first day of third year hit me like a brick. It was the worst first day of school I’ve ever had. By this point, Covid restrictions had been completely lifted. We no longer had base classrooms and now moved around for every different class.

I hadn’t seen my now former best friend all summer. We didn’t fall out or anything, I was only just starting to realise that I needed to stop investing my time in her. We kept trying to meet up and the one time we almost did she forgot.

The first day back she only talked to me a little bit and I just spent the day hanging around with her while she talked to my former friends who ignored me. From that day on I knew she just didn’t want me around anymore and so from then on, I stopped making an effort with her. We stopped talking and I wasn’t going to sit with her anymore. Instead, I sat with my nicer friend who took me under her wing in second year along with a new but different group of girls.

At the beginning of third year, I didn’t have a lot of friends in school but that was going to change soon. There was the pain of seeing my ex-best friend with the group who bullied me but I wasn’t going to let something like that ruin my year. Besides it was our junior cert year, and it wasn’t the right time to be distracted. Compared to second year, third year was peaceful. I didn’t have a lot going on. I found it boring and uneventful but I needed it after the year but also so I could survive my junior cert.

As the year went on I made friends with the new people I was now sitting with. They were friendly and kind, unlike the others who I was friends with previously. A lot of them happened to be in some of my classes for years and I never talked to them until now. For example, one of the girls in my new friend group had been in my Irish class and the year before I never talked to her because I was too busy talking to my other friends.

By the end of the year, I’d established a solid group of friends who were kind and supportive, the complete opposite of my last school friend group. We started to meet each other outside of school and I invited them to my birthday party. Third year was when I gradually started to feel happier in myself and things just got better.

How open communication, friendships, counselling, and music became lifelines

My parents have been amazing and helped me through all my struggles. After they found out what I was going through in first year I felt I was able to open up to my Mam and Dad about things that were on my mind. So whenever I get sad I don’t just keep it in, I talk to them about how I’m feeling and they are always there to listen and offer me guidance.

All the way through and when I was struggling with friends in school I’ve had my core group of friends outside of school who I’ve had since primary school. When COVID hit in first year it was hard because I never got to see them but we remained in contact. I see them all the time now and as the years went on even though we went to different schools we grew closer.

I was lucky to have received counselling when I was struggling the most. I’d normally have a counselling session on a weekday so if something happened that same day I’d be able to talk to my counsellor about it and get some perspective on the situation and have guidance offered to me. She also focused heavily on boosting my confidence and that was helpful given I was going through a period of having low self-esteem.

Going to the Gaeltacht helped and changed me for the better. It made me realise that there were some nice people out there. It restored my belief that people could be kind even though I didn’t know them very well. It was a great confidence boost for me to go on my own without friends and stay the course for three weeks. I went back after my junior cert and this time I have made good friends, we hope to go there together this year.

Finally, there was music. Whether it was listening to music or playing music it was just something that was always there for me. I got back into playing the piano and I even taught myself how to play the guitar. I have gotten close to people through music. I did the music camp again last summer and now I’m playing in a band.

All of these things have helped me on my journey and sustained me through it.

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