06 November 2019
Every single person has mental health and I’m sure that you’ll agree there is a gap in the way mental health and physical health are understood and treated. Even in countries like the UK, which are advanced in terms of their understanding of mental health, diagnosis can be poor, treatment can be inconsistent and there remains little education around the subject. Despite the strides we have made in recent years, more needs to be done, particularly to help young people understand their mental health, and give them the tools they need to cope in our fast moving world.
I have strong feelings about talking about mental health and, in particular, discussing my own as openly as possible. I feel that that the need to talk and help stems back to my own experiences within Children and Adult Mental Health Services and now within adult mental health services and the NHS as a whole.
I was 15 years old when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Before I was formally diagnosed, I know I was exhibiting the signs of mental illness. I’m fairly sure my family and friends didn’t notice those symptoms, and it’s something I look back on now, with 12 years of hindsight, and find astonishing. I don’t blame my parents at all, and nor do I blame my extended family. I don’t remember us openly discussing mental health as I grew up, but we’d never had anyone in our family openly struggle with mental illness, so why should we have discussed it? I realise that by today’s standards, with stigma breaking down, campaigns becoming widespread and people from all walks of life openly discussing their mental wellbeing, that sounds a little outdated. But things were different when I was 15. Outside our household, mental health felt almost taboo, and looking back, I feel that this clouded my judgement about being able to talk to my family.
I’m very pleased to say that in the last 12 years, things have changed at home, and we’re all now much better at discussing these issues. It’s something I am extremely grateful for as my younger sister and two brothers are currently in their teens, and I’d like to think they would be more open than I was back then.
I cannot bring myself to blame my friends for not spotting that I was unwell during that period either. I know they would notice if it had happened today but back then, we were all so young; we were wrapped up in school, and all the drama that comes with being teenagers, and we had never discussed mental health or wellbeing in school. Not once.
I often think about that now and feel furious about it. I feel that, in a way, my lack of education around mental health, not only in adults but also in adolescents, robbed me of so much of my youth. I’ve spent at least half of my teenage years and all of my twenties playing catch up; learning about mental health generally, how to spot the signs and support others and, perhaps most importantly, about my own diagnosis and how to manage it.
Immediately following my diagnosis, I don’t remember much in the way of support. I vaguely remember attending counselling sessions far too many months after that initial doctor’s visit, which were unhelpful overall, but I don’t remember any follow ups with my doctor beyond them, or any medication or any talk about how I could manage it, what depression and anxiety was, and would mean for me in my life. After some sessions with a counsellor, I dropped off the system and at the time, I genuinely believed I had been forgotten about. I remember feeling completely alone with my thoughts, incredibly frightened and rejected by a system that either couldn’t or wouldn’t help me. By the time I got to university three years later, I had simply accepted that this was ‘my lot’ in life, and had come up with incredibly unhealthy ways to deal with things. In short, CAMHS, which I didn’t even know existed at the time, completely failed me.
I finally got on track to access the right sort of help at university, outside of CAMHS as I had reached adulthood by that point, but my experiences as a teenager still affect me to this day. It has been 12 years since that initial appointment, and only in the last few years have I felt that I’m truly getting to a place where I can understand and accept the state of my mental health, and have felt informed enough to talk to people like you about it. I’ve even come to realise that my initial diagnosis was more than likely incorrect, and that my symptoms better fit an underlying personality disorder, which I’m now starting to learn to manage. I know that had my initial contact with mental health services been better, that I would understand it, and myself, much more, and possibly be in a better position mentally than I currently am.
It’s disappointing that in this time, not much has improved. The stigma surrounding mental health is breaking down, which is amazing, but that means that demand is increasing and as a result, hundreds of young people in Wales alone are waiting a month or more to see someone in CAMHS. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of young people referred to CAMHS doubled. Time to Change Wales tells us that one in ten young people will experience a mental health problem and yet, the Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee found that just over half of schoolchildren in Wales knew where to get information about emotional wellbeing and mental health at their school or college in 2018. More importantly, 65.9 per cent wanted to be taught more about how to look after their emotional wellbeing and mental health. While I have to admit that is an improvement on my school days, it also tells me we’re still not talking about it enough.
There’s still a long way for us to go, which is why research like this is so important. Research which can support practical solutions, change our understanding of mental health problems and improve the short and long term future of our nation’s mental wellbeing. Mental health research saves lives, improves quality of life and generates social and economic benefits that contribute to thriving communities. It raises awareness and brings people to the realisation that they aren’t fighting this alone. Speaking as a former teenager who felt incredibly alone, believe me when I say that means the world to a young person struggling with their mental health.
The impact of mental health is more than the statistics and facts we all know. The impact is buried deeply inside our own heads, our hearts, and in our very skin. It’s in our families, our friends and entire communities. It’s within every single person and thing that our individual lives touch, and it is so important that we turn that negative impact into a positive where we can.
By supporting research such as this, we are brought one step closer to understanding mental health, to spotting those symptoms and to making a difference to millions of young people’s lives. As one person within those millions still suffering the effects of adolescent mental health, I can say with certainty that that is the best thing we can do for future generations.