Break The Stigma: Student Fights The Mental Health Cause

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Teenagers and young adults in our society have been stereotypically framed as moody and unsociable, with media representations fuelling this belief. Our supposed laziness, lack of ambition and timidity have been ridiculed and held up as a phase which one is expected to overcome. The reality, however, is that one in five adolescents struggle with a diagnosable mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Thus, what is characterised as mere moody behaviour can actually be the repercussions of coping with a disorder which parents and medical professionals write off as typical teen conduct.

Members of the medical profession are still prone to patronising young adults concerning their mental health, and a certain social stigma is attached to victims of these problems, as it would seem that they simply aren’t dealing with the trials and tribulations of life as well as others.

Challenging this stigma is George Watkins, a student of English at Cardiff University, who has been campaigning for increased awareness of these issues, and a chance for young people to open up about their struggles. His campaign, The Mental Youth, came about from George’s own struggles with anxiety and depression, which inspired him to provide help to those suffering in silence.

The issues started for George when he was 13, and went on a prescription of beta-blockers after a consultation with a GP concerning his anxiety and depression. The beta-blockers were initially ineffective, so he was then given a higher dosage. He comments that the drugs made him feel “out of touch,” and caused him to “retreat into a little world” of his own. Alongside the beta-blockers, George was taking prescribed Prozac, a combination which continually threatened to provoke cardiac arrest. At age 16, he experienced a mental breakdown. He remained in bed for over two weeks, and did not leave his house for the following six months. Aged 17, he was assigned counselling sessions, during which he was subject to patronisation and misdiagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Throughout sixth form, George experienced life as a monotonous existence, completing the same tasks habitually each day without variation or enjoyment.

Moving to Cardiff University from the sleepy rural town of Sherborne marked a turning point in George’s life. He refers to the move as “the hardest month” of his life, and suffered a panic attack on the journey there on moving-in day. Following a consultation with a new GP, George came off the beta-blockers and subsequently went through a period of six weeks in withdrawal, frequently collapsing and enduring fever and confusion. Four months later and free from the beta-blockers, he claims that the “biggest progress I’ve made has been talking to people,” and that he could “draw a line between the old me and the new me.” In discussing his struggle, instead of going it alone, George received the support he needed to tackle his anxiety and depression to the point where it no longer controls his every moment, an approach which he is now advocating for everyone living with a mental health issue.

It is estimated that 48% of adolescents with mental health issues do not discuss the matter with anyone, and are therefore dealing with these disorders alone. Reasoning for staying quiet stems from many concerns, such as the fear of being misunderstood, or the possibility of being teased and mocked for being “abnormal.” George himself was tormented by bullying in school due to his anxiety, and even now he explains, “I still get some abuse about it.” He argues that the “biggest problem is social attitudes,” as this fear of being judged prevents victims from opening up about their problems. The campaign, with its slogan of ‘break the stigma’, aims to overcome this societal prejudice, in order to cease the silencing of victims. George proposes that mental health is “at the place where LGBT was,” in that the fear of prejudice and oppression inhibits discussion and expression, but that it can ultimately be challenged as well.

The campaign originated when George realised it “really freaks people out when I talk about megeorgental health, so I thought, I’m going to get this on a t-shirt.” The t-shirt, as pictured, stated explicitly his mental health issues, and served to provoke some form of response. Discussion of mental health issues was initiated, and since then the campaign has gained volunteers and support by the bucket-load. George’s objective for the campaign is “to start a conversation,” and allow young people to express their struggles in spite of societal fears. With a website and an interview with BBC News, the campaign has grown immensely from its birth, and is catching the attention of many. He says, “We’ve had such a huge response from people on campus” at Cardiff University, but now wants to push the campaign further.

“It really freaks people out when I talk about mental health, so I thought, I’m going to get this on a t-shirt.

George is currently laying the foundations for a well-being society at university, and is also in the process of writing an autobiographical account of his experiences, the aim of which is to increase the scope of the campaign to a national level. Touchingly, he mentions, “My reason for getting out of bed every morning is to make sure that no one has to go through what I went through.” To talk, and accept support, is the overriding message of the campaign, to bring repressed emotion into the open. Consequently, young people can begin to combat these issues, not alone, but with the encouragement of friends and family. Altering social attitudes toward mental health is a monumental target, but, as George says, “We’ve started something.”

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