We first met 16-year-old Anna in January 2019. She had missed out on four years of schooling and had consequently become so isolated that she couldn’t even leave her bedroom to join her family for Christmas dinner.
“I just couldn’t go on at school any more, and tried to struggle through. But I had agoraphobia, autism, anxiety and panic attacks, and this led to me being bullied. My first collapsing panic attack happened just before Christmas 2015, and after that I was too scared to go back. I was 12.
“I couldn’t leave my bedroom once I stopped going to school, so I literally had no socialisation apart from my family, and they had to come up and see me one by one so I didn’t get overwhelmed.
“School did try to keep me there, but they didn’t understand mental health issues. Mum could see it wasn’t working, so she started looking for online schools or colleges. Then we found Red Balloon of the Air, and when we found out it catered for people with anxiety and depression, we knew it was right for me.
Anna’s experience at Red Balloon of the Air
“By the time I joined Red Balloon of the Air I hadn’t been to school for about four years.
“When I joined Red Balloon it was just amazing because everything was online and very calm, and there was no pressure. Everyone made me feel really welcome. They made me feel comfortable and showed me that they weren’t really worried about the education straight away. First they wanted me to be OK – then later on we shifted the focus more on education.
“With Red Balloon I’m now in an environment where they understand anxiety and other difficulties. They even let me bring my little dog in with me. My panic attacks are less prominent now and my anxiety seems to have calmed down a lot.
“One of the best things at the start was the online and face-to-face therapy Red Balloon offers. It doesn’t feel like therapy; it just feels like chatting to someone about your life”.
Re-engagement – joining her peers again
“The socialisation and community element of Red Balloon has been a real bonus for us.
“I was encouraged to join in events – picnics, parties, groups who get together and do things. I’m not usually good at open spaces – but I really, really enjoyed myself on Red Balloon’s activities. We take things at our own pace.
“My first Red Balloon Christmas was amazing. I was ready to socialise more and was on the winterfest party planning committee. That Christmas I wanted to be with everyone, and see the friends I’d made at Red Balloon.
“Christmas was really relaxed, and I didn’t have any panic attacks, even though we had a lot of people over at home. It felt like when you have a new person in the family – it seemed even more fun and enjoyable. It was the best Christmas we’d had in years. I was almost like a new element to the family, thanks to Red Balloon.”
A hugely poignant moment was in the run up to Christmas 2019, when Anna proudly walked into our Milton centre and gave us the Christmas tree for her bedroom, saying:
“I’m not going to need this tree this year, as I’m going to join my family downstairs”.
Anna leaves Red Balloon in June 2021 after taking her GCSEs and hopes to go on to college to study either dog grooming or theatre stage make-up.