February 21, 2014

Stand up to stigmaMy experiences with mental health began at a fairly young age. At thirteen, I had been suffering in silence at the hands of bullies since high school began. I then experienced my first real loss when a close relative, who was very much like a sibling to me passed away. The difficulties in coping and not knowing how to respond led me to habitual fantasizing and self-harm. It felt like I was taken away, even if temporarily, from my pain. My anxieties triggered obsessive-compulsive needs to clean my hands, check windows, doors and kitchen appliances as a way of trying to cope. I had never thought, deeply, about my coping strategies at this time, it was a few years later when I came to understand something was wrong.

I realised then that something was wrong

It was when I was sixteen years old that I recognised and accepted my issues. It seemed like everyone around me was bidding farewell to what should have been one of the most memorable and exciting times in a person'slife - high school. But I felt very low, had little energy and stopped enjoying everything that kept me going before. I realised then something was wrong. Everything that I was feeling and I had been experiencing up until then hit me and I was seeing the problem: I was ill. Just like a physical ailment, a mental health issue can have its causes, symptoms and cures. But still I stayed quiet. My crippling fear of humiliation and rejection stopped me from doing something about it. It wasn't until three years later I finally found the courage to ask for help.

The day I completed my A-Level exams should have been a day of celebration joy and pride, at the very least a day of relaxation. But I spent that day and much of the rest of the summer feeling incredibly down. I was indescribably afraid of the coming weeks: results and the impending start of university life. How would I cope in such an unfamiliar place? Would my OCD tendencies return as a result of my anxieties? What about my social anxieties?

I knew if I was to enjoy this experience I needed something to change

My year began and I knew if I was to enjoy this experience I needed something to change. So I took the first step in talking to someone by visiting my GP. Immediately after I was referred to a clinic for therapy. Then the next step - telling a friend. This felt harder so I simply sent a short, simple email stating I was in poor mental health. I was worried the response would be like everything else I've heard around me. Like people telling others to "just cheer up" or "be grateful for the good and you won't feel sadness". But to my absolute relief not only did this person comfort me, assure me and not judge me, but also spoke very openly about their own battles with depression and other mental illnesses. The reason I felt such relief was I now had someone I could speak openly about my problems with, without fear of teasing or being stigmatised. There are good days, there are bad days, and on the bad days I now have someone to speak to.

Talking was the first step in getting better

Today, almost 21 and in my second year of university, I am relieved to have been brave enough to stand up and talk about mental health. After visiting my GP and being given a referral, I spent two months in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and it truly gave me an insight into my problems: Social Anxiety and Depression. Here, I learned I am not my diagnosis. That talking was the first step to getting better. And most importantly, I learnt that we are not alone. Speaking to a friend also helped plenty by reminding me I am in company of people who care and who want to help.

Self-harm was just a false sense of releasing pain. But the only real path to getting better is to talk about it.

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