Specialist education provider, National Learning Network, has experienced a significant increase in students presenting with social anxiety since the pandemic.

National Learning Network (NLN), the education and training division of the Rehab Group, provides inclusive education and training opportunities with specialist supports to promote student success in personal, vocational, and occupational goals.

Principal Psychologist with National Learning Network, Dr Denise O’Dwyer, commented: “The defining feature with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is really the fear of negative evaluation by others. SAD is most often linked to social and societal standards and norms, as well as personal roles and expectations. If we feel we’re not living up to the standards that are expected of us, or that we have imposed upon ourselves, this can create tension and anxiety within. This often results in safety seeking behaviours such as withdrawal, isolation, rumination and under or over-performance. Many NLN students reported struggling to leave their rooms during Covid, the consequences of which has had a sustaining impact for many. There also appears to be a rise in anxiety related new referrals, with co-morbid addiction patterns and low mood to further complicate matters.”

Director of National Learning Network, Lucianne Bird, said, “As a wider context to students’ learning at NLN, the pandemic had significant socio-emotional impacts on young people. While for some, it offered a comfort level insofar as they were able to stay within the parameters of the home, for many, it had negative socio-emotional effects, including heightened anxiety, damage to their social networks and contacts and a disruption to daily routines. We have witnessed a significant increase in students presenting with social anxiety and related mental health difficulties in recent years. Anxiety is huge among the younger students coming to us. NLN provides a safe space to achieve educational and career goals in a supportive environment surrounded by people living with similar challenges”.

“At NLN training centres, students get lots of one-to-one support and individual support.  We take an affirmative approach to working with all students.  We assess where they’re at and then create a personalised learning plan for them, and tailor the learning precisely to them,” explained Ms Bird.

Ciara Glynn, a former National Learning Network Maynooth student, lived with crippling social anxiety for years. She is now employed as a Peer Support Worker with the HSE. 

“In my early 20s, I started to experience debilitating mental health challenges. Panic attacks and overwhelming anxiety made it extremely challenging for me to cope with daily life and routine. I spent many years feeling lost and not knowing what to do. I had lost confidence in myself, and my abilities and I developed social anxiety. I needed somewhere to heal.  Somewhere that felt safe and comfortable and that would help get me back into the world again.”

Ciara joined a course in National Learning Network in Maynooth, and her life soon changed. 

 “I joined a course in National Learning Network in Maynooth. Being in there normalised my experience because I wasn’t the only one who struggled. I felt less alone. It was the first time that I sat in a room and heard other people talk about their mental health openly. Up until that point, I had thought that I was the oddest person on the planet. In my time there, I realised that it is a normal human thing to struggle.”

“I did an 18-month course called Jobstart, and in that time, I flourished. The instructors were brilliant. I worked with an NLN instructor named Fiona, and she was such an amazing woman. She had these strategic ways, little games, and activities to help us all build confidence. She was really rooting for me and everyone else in there. I felt NLN was different to other colleges as I didn’t feel the need to hide my mental health. Everyone was there because they needed extra support in life, and there was something really comforting about being in that environment.”

“The NLN trained me in WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) facilitation, and I delivered this within the organisation. At the end of the 18 months, I got a part-time job as an instructor in NLN and realised that I wanted to work in mental health and use my journey of recovery to support others. I am now working in the HSE as a Peer Support Worker.”

“Peer Support is a relatively new role in the HSE where we use our lived experience of mental health and recovery to support people who use the service. I work with people one-to-one, and I also run groups. When the people I support are growing and making strides in their recovery journey, it is such a joy to witness because I know exactly how difficult that can be to get to that point. I feel immensely privileged to be involved in the peer relationship with them.”

Ciara now believes she has come full circle, turning what she perceived to be “my biggest flaw into my biggest asset”.

“It has been a liberating experience. I still have social anxiety and dips of low mood, but I view it as a very normal part of my human experience. The difference now is that it doesn’t prevent me from doing the things that I want to do. I have learned how to manage it, and I am now living a more fulfilling life. I am working full-time in the HSE, and I am also an occasional lecturer in DCU and UCD, where I deliver recovery/peer support content to peer support and nursing students. I owe so much of this to National Learning Network, Fiona and all the staff who helped me get my life back. NLN was a significant milestone in my journey back to wellness, and I always recommend the organisation to the people I support.”

Ms Bird concluded: “NLN staff are skilled at providing the specific support required for people living with mental health challenges; of course, the type and level of support varies from person to person.  In In all our training centres, we welcome and support people to be their true and authentic selves without pressure to conform to traditional social norms.”

Ciara is just one of a number of expert presenters who spoke about their experiences and the type of support NLN can offer to people struggling with social anxiety and related mental health challenges at a free, public webinar on the topic of social anxiety on Thursday, July 20th 2023.

Click here to watch the webinar:

National Learning Network offers over 70 certified, supported training courses across Ireland. The organisation caters for people with learning, sensory, intellectual or physical disabilities, mental health issues including anxiety and social phobia, autistic people, or people who have suffered an illness or injury. All courses are fully-funded by the local Education and Training Board or the HSE. 

Go to www.nln.ie to find your nearest NLN centre or email: info@nln.ie