Things became very dark for Galway man Chris Sherlock during his school years after he was continually taunted and attacked. But now he’s making a career in radio and podcasts and is encouraging others who are the victims of bullying to not suffer in silence
Over the last decade, partly in the wake of a number of notable international cases — including the trials of American students who had tormented Clare schoolgirl Phoebe Prince before her suicide — the perception of school bullying has changed from being an inevitable part of growing up to a social wrong that needs to be tackled. An Oireachtas committee report published in August noted that bullying is “widespread in every urban and rural school” in Ireland.
Data submitted by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland claims 7.6pc of children aged 11-15 will encounter “chronic bullying”. And while many schools do have policies on bullying, these can often be tokenistic and aren’t implemented correctly. Access to counsellors and therapists is scant and the consequences for this overall landscape are great. According to the Oireachtas committee’s chairman, Paul Kehoe: “It is not an exaggeration to say that school bullying can affect a person for the rest of their lives.”
Chris Sherlock is the human face of a problem that often goes unreported. As a teenager, the 29-year-old broadcaster and author from Galway was subjected to violent bullying in school and at one point the situation became so distressing that he considered taking his own life.
Chris grew up in Galway with a brother who is 16 years older than him. When he was a child his mother was a carer for his father, who was seriously ill with heart issues. At 13, Chris, like most Irish children, went into secondary school. He had left some of his national school posse behind — they had gone to other schools and he wasn’t part of any teams in the new school, where sport was a big focus.
Eager to fit in, he resorted to showing off to trying to win new friends, but the tactic backfired. He says: “I was the subject of name calling within the first week. These were guys who were a couple of years ahead of me. It happened in the schoolyard and in the canteen, it could have been anywhere. I was in a resource class and that was a mixed class. They called me ‘bucked teeth’, f*****, a multitude of things together, basically just anything to pick on the new kid.”
The day the physical abuse began is seared into his memory. “I was on the phone talking to my mum about a particular subject. Out of nowhere I was pinned against the wall and my phone was thrown. I felt a hand around my neck and someone was saying, ‘who are you on the phone to?’ I could feel myself up against the wall. I remember trying to get out of the situation as quickly as possible and I was worried that my mother was still on the line, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. And when I called her back I just said I had dropped the phone. I didn’t want to come across like I was in fear at school.”
Not wanting to be seen as a “rat”, he simply faked being sick a lot and stayed home from school. He adds: “I was awake at night reliving what happened, and although I didn’t know the term then, now I understand that it was PTSD creeping in.”
As time went on the violence escalated. On one occasion two boys tried to bar his entry to class after the bell had rung in the school. One of them pulled Chris’ T-shirt over his head and he was pushed down the stairs, leaving him with a big gash on his arm.
“I was paranoid with fear and shock. I remember looking up at the guys who pushed me down and they were laughing. There was blood and I felt delirious. I went straight to the school office to get help and I was wondering how I would cover it up. There was a school nurse there and she saw I was panicked and my parents were called.”
He took a few days off but when it came to return he stood outside the gates of the school and realised that he needed to tell his mother what was happening. “I wasn’t able to even make sense to her, I was so flustered, it all came out at once. My parents got onto the school straight away. That was a bit of a relief but I still had a fear of going to school.”
The boys who were involved got detention and were suspended — one of them later threatened Chris outside the school — and Chris was eventually referred to a child psychologist. Tuition, which he was supposed to receive to help him make up for the time he had missed in the classroom, was discontinued due to cuts in funding and Chris refused to go back to the school. At home he suffered from anxiety and depression and binge ate.
“I was left to my own devices. My family couldn’t afford private tuition. I was just left at home. My therapist had given me techniques to cope with anxiety. I learned that I could go for walks to get a bit of headspace.
“One day I went walking by the canal in Galway and I thought you know what, there is a lot of hassle in my life, I would be better off dead. I was going to throw myself in; I knew I couldn’t swim and just hoped it would be over quickly.”
At that moment two boys happened to walk by. He adds: “They said we’re going back to our place to play video games and asked me if I wanted to go with them. If it hadn’t been for that simplest act of kindness, them being normal with me, that was enough. When I look back at it now it’s incredible to think I got into that place.”
Chris confided in his therapist about his suicidal thoughts and she informed his parents, who then told him he didn’t have to go back to the school. Chris says he was too fearful of a recurrence of the issues at a new school to countenance that option.
He also credits the Youth Advocacy Service in the Galway City Partnership with helping him to find his career path in his own time. Gradually he began to find his confidence and now he is building a career for himself as a a podcaster and broadcaster, hosting his Guaranteed Irish show on Flirt FM 101.3, the licensed student radio station at NUIG, every Wednesday. He is also the author of Mental Health For Millennials Volume 4 with a chapter that focuses specifically on his experience with bullying. “I didn’t want to let the bullying define who I was going to be. Broadcasting was a hobby and a passion.”
These days his mental health is much better and he offers a message of hope as well as practical advice for those who are going through something similar.
“The worst of the anxiety, depression and binge eating I suffered — I have gotten out of all of that. I feel like I can get on with life. For kids going through this I’d just say: do speak up. I thought that it was the case that the less I said the better, but in fact the more I spoke up, the more things improved. You don’t have to suffer by yourself.”
Anti-Bullying Week takes place on November 15-19. Chris’ podcast, Chris Sherlock on the Wireless, is available on Spotify, GooglePlay, Spotify and iTunes