Selective mutism is not as well-known as other mental health conditions - it is a severe anxiety disorder that leaves someone living with it unable to speak when placed in certain situations or with certain people. It is often diagnosed in childhood, but, in some cases, can continue into adulthood (1).
A common misunderstanding that people with selective mutism face, is the belief that they just do not want to talk, but that is not the case. Most of the time, we really do want to talk but are physically unable to get our words out. This led to some awkward situations when I was younger, as most people thought I was being rude or choosing to ignore them.
As with all mental health conditions, everyone’s experiences will vary slightly, but here are some common signs of selective mutism (1):
Avoiding eye contact
Sudden stillness and/or frozen facial expression
Shyness and withdrawal
This article is just about my experiences. Everyone dealing with this condition will not have the same experience, but I hope this will bring some awareness to the challenges of selective mutism (SM).
Since I was a very young child, I have always been considered “shy” or “quiet” – most of my school reports are extremely positive, but every year without fail, my teachers would say that I needed to speak up more in class or get more involved in group discussions.
I should probably mention that I wasn’t diagnosed with SM while I was in primary school, as we were not aware that it was even a thing. By the time we were aware of it, I was far too afraid to go to the doctor to get a formal diagnosis. So, I went through all my school years without any support of any kind (which I do not recommend at all!).
During my primary school years (up to age 11), I was able to speak to my teacher (very little and only about what was absolutely necessary - e.g. answering my name for the register) and my close friends. I remember when I would go to my friends’ houses after school or for sleepovers, I would struggle to speak to their parents. They would ask me what I would like to eat or drink and I would have to get my friend to speak on my behalf. I’m sure most of them must have thought that I was a strange or rude child. My SM never affected my academic ability, if anything I was told I was a bright child. I really enjoyed learning. I often spent hours reading after school or teaching myself about topics, such as different languages or history, that had nothing to do with my schoolwork. I then began noticing more and more challenges. I remember feeling physically sick at the thought of having to attend drama classes, reading out loud in class, or taking part in any form of public speaking during secondary school. This led to me missing quite a few lessons.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I decided to stop fighting it and learn to support myself. Instead of getting upset that I couldn’t take part in something like speaking during a class presentation, I would offer to design the slideshow, create the scripts, and organise other aspects of projects. University was the next big step, but I learned to use each small thing that I conquered to build my confidence. Answering a question during a seminar might not phase most people, but as someone who enjoys learning, I always wanted to take part in class discussions or ask a question when I didn’t understand something, but my selective mutism didn’t allow me to. I could probably count on one hand the number of times my lecturers/seminar tutors have ever heard me speak up in my whole time at university. I do, however, remember feeling extremely proud of myself the few times I had taken part. I remember sitting there thinking “I know the answer! Should I just do it? Do I put my hand up?” and it turned out that I was correct – but even if I had gotten the answer wrong, I still would have been proud that I even tried to answer! On the other hand, I have lost marks in a module that graded me on participation. We were graded on how often we asked questions, answered others', or engaged in group discussions, but I mostly sat there and listened even though I knew my grades would suffer. I may have come to terms with my selective mutism, but I still have a hard time admitting it to people.
I have spent most of my life ignoring my selective mutism. I keep thinking that maybe if I pretend it isn’t there, it will go away. But that is not how mental health works – and as a psychology student, I should have known better.
As you may have guessed, I have decided to come to terms with my mutism. It may have been difficult to acknowledge my difficulties, but I can see a difference in my mental health. A recent example of me coping with my mutism would be having to apply for what my university calls “special circumstances”. I was due to present to a “small” group (they think 20 people is small ☹), and I had done all my preparations and felt like I could actually do it! But when the morning of the presentation came, my selective mutism took over. Instead of just taking a lower grade or pretending that I was ill, I decided to explain exactly what was happening. It was the best thing I could have done! I have since received so much support from the university and will forever kick myself for not doing it sooner.
Mental health issues do come with challenges, but there are people out there that can help. If you are reading this and are also a student, remember that your school/university wants you to do well and that if there is anything they can do to make your studies easier, from my experience, they will! Take it from me - do not ignore the challenges you face. Some things might feel impossible to overcome, but once you succeed, you will feel like you are on top of the world.
1. The National Health Service. (n.d.). Selective mutism. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/selective-mutism/#:~:text=Selective%20mutism%20is%20a%20severe,untreated%2C%20can%20persist%20into%20adulthood