When I think back to my first year of secondary school, I didn’t really know much about mental health. I could maybe have named a couple of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, but there were so many things I didn’t understand. I definitely didn’t realise that anyone, including myself, could develop a mental health problem.
Fast forward to year 9, and I had learnt a little bit more. I began to see mental health on a kind of continuous scale that could change. I realised that someone could have really good mental health at one stage in their life, and at another stage, they could struggle. I’d learnt this after seeing some of my friends begin to suffer with their mental health. I tried to be there for them and asked them what I could do to support them. I knew that this wasn’t their fault, and that they were suffering from a serious illness. But not everyone saw it that way. I had heard people talk about mental illness in a negative way. They said it was attention seeking, that the person should just “snap out of it”. I now realise that these were just a couple of examples of the stigma surrounding mental health. Things people think that simply aren’t true.
It was this stigma that prevented me from accepting that I may be suffering from a mental health problem. It also stopped me from seeking help. In year 11, I had noticed that I kept getting really short of breath, that my heart would beat extremely fast and I would feel shaky. My parents and I thought there was something physically wrong, but when I visited my GP she told me that I had an anxiety disorder and that I needed to see a therapist. All I could do was think back to the things I had heard people say before. What if people did think I was attention seeking? What if they thought I was less of a person because I had a mental health problem? I therefore kept this ‘secret’ to myself. Instead of telling my friends that I had a therapy session, I made excuses as to why I had to leave school early, or why I couldn’t go out with them after school. It was quite a lonely time, and also a difficult one, because I hated the fact I was lying to my friends.
Once the therapy came to an end, I thought I would just be able to put this behind me and nobody would ever have to know that I had had a mental illness. I thought that was the end, that I was ‘cured’. But recovery is not that linear. My support network had consisted of just my therapist, because I refused to tell anyone else, but now that she had gone, my support network was non-existent.
A few months later, I began to struggle again. I wasn’t achieving the grades I wanted, a close friend had passed away and my self-worth had plummeted. This led me to use food and exercise as a coping mechanism. I became obsessed with my weight, with counting calories, and I developed a fear of food. Once again, I remembered those things that I had heard people say, and I therefore kept my struggles to myself. But this time, my friends came to the rescue. They noticed that I didn’t seem myself and that I was losing weight, so they talked to a teacher about their concerns. The teacher then talked to me and helped me to see that having a mental illness wasn’t my fault, and I shouldn’t be ashamed.
Because of my friends, I was able to get the help and support I needed. I went back to my GP, who diagnosed me with Anorexia Nervosa. Part of my treatment included an admission to hospital and whilst I was there, my friends sent me letters and cards, visited me and told me that they believed in me. They laughed with me, cried with me, they were understanding and, most importantly, they didn’t change the way they acted around me. They were completely themselves.
This week is Children’s Mental Health Week and the theme is #BeingOurselves. It was so important for me that my friends were themselves throughout my recovery. When everything around me seemed different and unfamiliar, our friendship was the one thing that was familiar, and that was vital. Having such supportive friends allowed me to be more open and to create a wider support network, which has helped to keep me well. Now, I am able to flourish, because my friends helped me to see that I was deserving of help, and that mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of.