School phobia is 'true terror' for some students

September 02, 1993|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

School phobia may sound like one of those fancy terms cooked up by a psychiatrist.

But to students suffering anxiety attacks -- heart pounding, stomach churning, feverish sweat streaming from pores -- school phobia is a true terror.

"It's not a joke," said Cynthia Last, a professor of psychology at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who specializes in treating anxiety in children. "School phobia has serious consequences."

Ms. Last has received a $750,000 grant from the National Institute for Mental Health in Washington to study treatments for school phobia. The four-year study will allow free therapy for 100 local children and adolescents, who have an irrational fear of school.

Since 1989, Ms. Last and her Nova students have treated about 100 students with school phobia. Ms. Last said she has an 80 percent success rate.

School phobia can strike students of all ages, and it can strike them in different ways, Ms. Last said. In the most extreme cases, Ms. Last said, fear of school has driven her patients to jump from a moving car, leap from a classroom window or gobble a potentially fatal dose of aspirin.

"It's not that the children want to kill themselves," Ms. Last said. -- "It's that they don't want to go to school."

Dr. Bennett Leventhal, chairman of the department of pediatric psychiatry at the University of Chicago, said getting students to school should be the first step in treatment. He said school phobia usually is a symptom of deeper problems.

"It could be separation anxiety or depression or a psychosis," he said.

But Ms. Last thinks school phobia is a distinct affliction that could start in physical education class with students ashamed of their body. It might begin with math anxiety or a fear of taking tests. It can then spread to all school-related activities.

Whether it is caused by genes or learned behavior is unclear, she said. It resembles irrational fears in adults such as claustrophobia, agoraphobia or acrophobia -- fear of enclosed places, fear of crowds, fear of heights.

"The important thing is to learn how to confront a conflict rather than avoid it," Ms. Last said.

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