Laelia Benoit: “School phobia is neither a whim nor a fad”



Why, as a young child psychiatrist, did school phobia immediately interest you?

The first time I heard a teenager talk to me about this anxiety disorder in consultation was in 2014. I was a young psychiatric intern in a hospital in Val-de-Marne and this notion, which was unknown to me , intrigued me. I continued to be interested in it during my first consultations at the House of Solenn (home for adolescents at the Cochin hospital, in Paris, editor’s note). Many young people came for that, I was able to multiply the meetings, with them and also their families. It emerged that while very detailed psychological descriptions of school phobia were available, there were no quantified data. The APS Association was very pending and we agreed to launch a questionnaire on the subject.

We spoke to those who most wanted to talk, that is to say the parents of children concerned. 2,000 people from all over France responded

How did you work for this very first survey ever conducted in France?

We spoke to those who most wanted to talk, that is to say the parents of children concerned. The questionnaire, distributed in 2018, addressed lifestyles as much as family situation, place among siblings, symptoms, screen addiction… We are talking here about a wide panel, ranging from children aged 5 to to 18 or 20 year olds. 2,000 people from all over France responded. Only downside: the lack of social representativeness of the panel. The families known to the association tend to come from the upper middle class. So we only see the submerged part of the iceberg, but that’s already a lot! The scientific work of analysis and synthesis ends only now. It will soon be published in the European journal of child and adolescent psychiatry.

What are the main lessons of your study?

It already appears that in one out of two cases, young people with school phobia have experienced school bullying before. We were able to establish five different profiles, depending on the duration or not of the school distance. Those who had rapid and intensive support all returned to class more quickly. The financial pitfall also appears very clearly. All the families who responded to the questionnaire mentioned non-reimbursed monthly expenses (psychologists, private lessons, etc.) ranging from €200 to €3,000.

There are still many prejudices saying that school phobia is a whim in children or a laxity in parents. Some speak of a fad, while school phobia is probably as old as school!

Official figures speak of 1% to 2% of children and young people in school suffering from school phobia. Do they seem fair to you?

The available assessments are very old and approximate. They often come from feedback from school nurses and doctors, who themselves are less and less numerous in schools. It would seem that the health crisis has increased the number of cases. The Facebook group of the School Phobia association had 4,000 members in 2018. There are 11,000 today and solicitations are daily.

What solutions do we have to fight against school phobia?

There are still many prejudices saying that school phobia is a whim in children or a laxity in parents. Some speak of a fad, while school phobia is probably as old as school! The real challenge is for everyone (family, teenagers, health professionals, schools) to work together. Exchange is the only solution to overcome anxiety disorders. Our school in the Republic was built by keeping families at a distance, involving them is not too much in its culture. She really needs to improve on this.

* Laelia Benoit, 35, is an associate researcher at the Inserm Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health, as well as an associate researcher at the Yale child study center, in the United States.

Laelia Benoit: “School phobia is neither a whim nor a fad”