First-class war with a phobia

May 16, 1997

The last eight essays Kevin Reah wrote in his final year at the Open University were outstanding by anybody's reckoning, five receiving marks of 95 per cent and the remaining three 100 per cent, writes Alison Utley.

Yet when he receives his first-class honours in modern literature on Saturday Mr Reah will reflect on his battle with a psychiatric illness so severe it almost killed him.

He overcame it to gain one of the OU's top ten degrees among approximately 8,000 graduates this year. He is also one of the winner in next week's adult learners awards, coordinated by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education.

Just six years ago a breakdown and two attempted suicides had led to severe depression. With just four poor O levels and several failed attempts to gain A levels at college Mr Reah decided to confront the social phobia which had so crippled him.

Enrolling on the OU's literature in the modern world programme was the turning point. He even began attending seminars once his tutor had promised not to ask him any questions during group work. "I never spoke, not even small talk with the others," he said.

Life was not so simple in the second and third years. A new tutor, a bigger group, and Mr Reah began to feel exposed again. He stopped attending seminars and did not meet another student or tutor during his entire third year.

Support from the student association persuaded Mr Reah to attend a summer school in York the following year. He teamed up with another "rough Geordie" and life began to feel normal.

Now Newcastle University has offered him a place on its MA in 20th-century studies. "I would like to try a bit of teaching," he says, a bold step which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

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