As May – mental health awareness month – is drawing to a close, I thought that I would take this opportunity to share my own experiences with mental health. Due to the stigmas and sensitivity surrounding this topic, this is perhaps one of the scariest things that I have written. But before I start, I would like to first point out that mental health is such a broad topic, and that everyone’s experience of it is different. In my view, my experiences with mental health are quite mild in comparison to some, but I still believe that any mental health problem – no matter how small – deserves to be addressed and heard.
I can’t say for sure when exactly my struggle with mental health began, yet if I had to pinpoint a moment that heavily influenced its onset, I would have to refer back to when I was fourteen years old. I had previously struggled with self esteem and anxiety before this, but I think that this was when it began to become a more significant issue. A boy that I went to school with – “K” – messaged me one night, saying various explicit things, that I definitely did not reciprocate. I remember being immediately repulsed, and messaging his cousin to tell him about it. And I thought that that would be the end of it. His cousin told his parents, who told K’s parents, who were more than displeased.
I went into school the next day a little apprehensive, though fairly certain that nothing more would come of it. And sitting there, in my last lesson of the day, it seemed that nothing had.
Until K, who sat at the desk in front of me at the time, turned to face me. I told him outright that I didn’t want to talk to him, and tried my best to ignore him, which he clearly did not appreciate.
“You know, you should really just kill yourself. Not like anybody would really care anyway, in fact, they’d probably celebrate.”
I don’t know whether he was pissed off at me for getting his parents involved, or whether he just thought it was funny, but something about what he said stirred some dark thoughts in me that I had never really payed attention to before, though they had most likely been there for a while.
That weekend was probably the first time I ever thought about suicide. Although, even then I’m not sure if I really meant it.
Now, I’m not saying that what happened with K was what started my depression, nevertheless, I still think that it had a part to play in increasing its intensity.
I waited until the weekend was over, went into school on Monday and showed a trusted teacher the messages from K. She was immediately disgusted and reported him to a senior member of staff who spoke with his family and arranged for me to move seats in class. I’d still have to be in the same room as him, but at least communication would be minimal. I thought that I could move on.
But then why didn’t I feel any better? Everything that happened with K lasted only a matter of days…so why did I still feel so low?
It took me a few months – and a lot of conversations with that same trusted teacher, Mrs H – to come to the conclusion that something was wrong. Mrs H suggested that I write a diary to keep track of my mood, and then when it came to our now weekly meetings, I would hand it to her to read. However, something about that just felt unnatural. The things I was feeling were too dark and uncomfortable to put into words, especially words that my teacher would be reading.
So we came up with a scale. 1 was the absolute worst, the darkest I could possibly feel. 10 was the best, most wonderful day. My diary was scattered among the 3’s and 5’s, with the occasional 7.
Mrs H came to the conclusion that I might be suffering from some form of mild depression.
But when I told my parents, it was dismissed as my teacher just trying to push a label on what was just simply ‘teenage hormones’. However, I don’t blame them. I hadn’t exactly given them any clues that anything was actually wrong. So to just blurt out whilst walking the dog with my mum that “oh, by the way, I might be depressed” probably came as a bit of a shock.
So I dismissed it too.
I tried to blame it on my friends, the stress of high school, K, my current lack of a relationship, and anything else that I could. To say that that ruined a lot of friendships is an understatement.
Yet, when these friendships ended, when I no longer had these “toxic” people in my life, I still felt just as toxic as ever.
Until the most wonderful thing happened. I got my 10.
I met my boyfriend online, and we started talking, and it was the happiest I’d felt in a while. But that wasn’t to say that I felt better. I was happy in my relationship, but I still wasn’t happy in myself.
I started going back to seeing Mrs H, and told her that I wanted to start counselling – official counselling. But it was a long and complicated process. Lots of forms, references needed, assessments to see if I would be considered a priority, waiting lists.
Teachers began to pull me aside after lessons, at parent’s evenings they would say that they were “concerned”. I’d have to come out of classes because I was crying, most of the time for unidentifiable reasons. I just felt so sad. I started to find any reason that I could not to go to school. I felt guilty for feeling so low, when I finally had the one thing that made me feel so happy.
My boyfriend tried to be understanding, he really did. But loving someone with a mental illness is hard enough, unimaginably so when you’re separated by 10,000 miles. There was little to nothing he could do when I would call him up crying for no reason, when I would tell him that I didn’t want to get out of bed today, when I couldn’t tell him what was wrong.
I fluctuated between over eating and barely eating anything at all, and my anxiety got even worse. I couldn’t sit in a class without feeling like there was a weight on my chest, and I would have panic attacks at my desk. My self-esteem sunk to its lowest point, and that was when I started to self-harm.
By the time I turned 16, I was at the lowest I’d ever been.
I didn’t self-harm regularly, but I did it when I felt those feelings of guilt. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood why I was doing it. But I knew that I felt guilty because I felt like my depression was my fault, like somehow it was something that I should have control over, and I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I felt like a burden to my family and my friends, especially when I couldn’t explain why I felt so low. This deeply impacted my self esteem, too, something that had never been particularly high in the first place.
Then finally, another teacher at my school referred me to Talkshop.
Talkshop is an advice and information service for young people, that focuses mainly on sexual and mental health. They offer drop-in services, as well as counselling or sessions with a specialised support worker.
I remember first going in, and being extremely nervous. I sat in a stuffy room covered in bright furniture and paintings, and spoke to a support worker called Emma about why I’d been referred. And for the most part, I told the truth. Until it got to the last question.
“Have you ever self-harmed?”
I shook my head defiantly, no. Emma smiled, and told me she had no more questions, and that she’d be having weekly sessions with me from now on, where we could just talk about how I was feeling in a safe space. Even now, I don’t know why I lied to her about my self-harm. I knew that she wouldn’t have to tell my parents unless she felt like I was at risk, and yet I still couldn’t bring myself to say it.
I met up with Emma every week after school. To distract from the awkwardness of the whole interaction and reduce my anxiety, Emma would bring various activities for us to do while we talked. Making pom-poms, colouring in, drawing, anything that would keep my hands busy to stop them from shaking. I felt pathetic, like a child in a play centre. And yet – it worked. Somehow, having something else to occupy myself physically allowed me to say the things that I couldn’t sat stiffly across a room.
But still, things didn’t seem to be improving.
I was still self-harming, I still felt low, I still couldn’t envision a future for myself where I would be happy.
That’s the thing, whenever I thought about the future, I never imagined myself there. When I thought of events even a few weeks ahead, I just couldn’t picture them. I had no ambition to be there.
And although I don’t think I ever seriously contemplated suicide, there were many times when it seemed almost…minor. Like K had said, maybe nobody really would mind?
This continued for a while.
Then the worst day of my life so far happened.
I was getting ready for school in my parent’s room because I’d left my hair straighteners in there. It was a really hot day, so I decided, just for a moment, while my mum was out of the room, to take my cardigan off. After a few minutes, she came back to sit next to me and watch the TV, having casual conversation.
And then she went quiet.
My heart stopped, and I looked down at my arm to see my very prominent and very recent self-harm scars were on display. I felt sick, unable to even look my mum in the eye as I heard her burst into tears. She cried a lot that day, and the feelings of guilt only increased.
She took me into school and demanded that the teachers do something to support me further. Although, looking back, I’m not really sure what they could have done. They did try scheduling me an appointment with the school nurse. She made me fill out some sort of questionnaire response about the way I was feeling. When I was done she added up my score and concluded that I “appeared to be depressed”, which wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking discovery.
That night, I was forced to sit in a comically formal fashion at the table with my parents as we had a “discussion”.
“Have you ever thought about suicide?”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Yeah, but you haven’t done this before, have you?”
It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life, yet it was necessary. Because, after reiterating it to Emma the next week, I finally got what I’d wanted – and probably needed – for months, counselling sessions with a professional counselor.
My sessions with Tracey were just as uncomfortable, just as awkward and just as tense as my past experiences, but they were also the most helpful. She taught me how the simplest things, such as holding my head up when I walk rather than looking at the ground (something I still try to do daily now), can improve your confidence, even just that little bit. I did Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with her on a few occasions, where she pointed out to me the ridiculousness of the thoughts I was having.
“Prove it,” was her response to the majority of things I said.
“I can’t,” was my constant reply.
Things were improving, and I hadn’t self-harmed since my mum had found out. I hadn’t even considered it, because even the thought of it just made me feel that sickness that I felt when I heard her crying about it in the shower after she found out. There was only one thing still holding me back – guilt. Because I’d lied to someone very important to me. I hadn’t told him the real reason why I’d had to start counselling, or why mum took me into school and demanded they do something. I hadn’t told him that I’d self-harmed again.
And although I knew that it would upset him, I felt like I couldn’t move on until I told the truth.
So I began some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had to have. The things we discussed were deeply personal, and it would be disrespectful to them to write them here for people to see, but the general idea that came out of it was this:
Either I had to get better – or at least to a point where my depression and anxiety were manageable – or we were going to have to end the relationship, not just for my health, but his too.
Now, a lot of people won’t understand this, and may even be offended by it, but due to our circumstances, I think that this decision was reasonable. Looking back on it now, unbeknownst to me, I had developed some fairly manipulative behaviours linking to my mental health. It is entirely possible to have a healthy relationship with somebody who is mentally ill, it just so happened that at that time, that was not what we had, in any capacity.
And so I decided that something had to change. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, and perhaps this change had already started on its own, but I just knew that I wanted to keep this person in my life no matter what. So something did change. I still can’t say what, or how it happened. I’m sure if I could it would be immensely helpful to anyone else going through the same thing. But there was just some sort of click.
During the period where me and my boyfriend were deciding whether or not to continue our relationship, I was the lowest and most guilty I’ve ever felt. And yet, as my counselor pointed out – I hadn’t thought about self-harming even once during that time. For whatever reason, it just didn’t appeal or occur to me as an option anymore, even though this was the most likely situation for me to want to do it.
A few months later, I had my last counselling session with Tracey. We just…ran out of things to talk about. I didn’t have any of the thoughts or feelings that I’d been dealing with for the last two years, and so there was just simply nothing more for us to discuss. And even though I’d only been seeing Tracey for a number of months, I felt like I was ready to move on.
On the day of my last counselling session, Tracey told me that the reason I’d been able to leave so quickly was that when I came to her, I was already ready to change. And I honestly believe that that’s true. Had I been sent to Tracey earlier, and given the help that I’d needed early on, I still believe that I would’ve left counselling on that very same day that I did in 2015. Because the events that lead up to that still had to happen in order for me to be able to make that positive change.
That day that I finished counselling (30th July 2015), I felt a huge relief. The pressure that I had felt on my chest for so long had been lifted. And because it was such a beautiful day out, I decided to enjoy it, as well as my new-found freedom. So instead of taking the bus, I walked the three miles home, holding my head up the whole way.
Now I’m well aware that you can’t just “decide” to get out of depression. If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be 1 in 4 people in the UK suffering from mental health problems*. I can’t say for sure what it was that allowed me to get better, but I can make a good guess.
Because the first step in tackling any mental health problem is to talk to somebody. It might be awkward and it most likely will be the last thing that you want to do, but it will help. Gathering a supportive network of people around you – whether they’re friends, family, etc – will help. It won’t solve the problem, but it’s a start.
Seeking professional help, however, is ideal, though not always possible. Due to the long waiting lists and limited resources, many people suffering with a mental illness face prolonged periods of time without help, depending on the perceived severity of their symptoms. Currently, approximately 1 in 8 adults in England and Wales are receiving treatment for mental health problems*, which is telling of the limited resources surrounding mental health.
I am aware of the fairly mild nature of my struggle with mental health, in comparison to many others, and am sure that this had a part to play in my overcoming it. However, I do not want to downplay my experiences either. It was a long and painful process that damaged a number of relationships in my life (which, thankfully, have now all been repaired). I still struggle daily with anxiety, however, it has become much more manageable, thanks to the techniques that I learned from counselling.
What I hope will come from me sharing my experience is that it will inspire other people to talk more openly about mental health as a whole, and see that it doesn’t need to be a taboo topic. I know that my story is just one among millions of others, but it is also one of hope.
*Statistics taken from Mind’s page on mental health facts and statistics *