Trigger warning: this post will talk of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.
It’s 2011. For any unsuspecting adult, I would have appeared to be just another angsty, attitude ridden adolescent. I had bright red hair, much to the dismay of the staff at my high school, because I was oh-so-edgy; my wardrobe consisted almost exclusively of Nirvana and Guns and Roses t-shirts from H&M because I was oh-so-punk rock; and it was rare to find me without my iPod touch at hand, blaring loud music and ignoring the world around me, because I was oh-so-moody. What these adults probably failed to see was that as a fourteen year old, I was severely depressed, struggling to make it through a day without self-harming and suffocated by the intense suicidal ideation I was experiencing.
I was referred to a local counselling service for children and teens in need of help when I was 14 years old. To give you all some context, however, getting to the point of being taken seriously enough to be referred on elsewhere had taken a lot of effort. I was 13 when I first went to see a doctor about my mental health issues. It was at this appointment that I was confronted by complete dismissal. “It’s just a phase,” the doctor explained. ‘All this crying and sadness is just your hormones playing up now that you’re a teenager – it will all settle eventually.’ Some phase, eh. ‘Plus,‘ continued the doctor, ‘you’ve got no real reason to be depressed anyway, right? You’re only young.’ After that experience, I withdrew into myself even more than before. The only reason I ended up being referred was because I was eventually able to see my family’s GP who could immediately see that something clearly wasn’t right.
My first experience of therapy was, to put it bluntly, an absolute waste of time. Not a waste of my time, though, but the counsellor’s time. It was because of the experience with that doctor that I told myself I really didn’t have a reason to be depressed, and I became so guilt ridden that I forced myself into total silence. How could I be depressed: I had a loving and supportive family, I had found myself a new group of friends since coming to high school, and I was healthy – how could I be so ungrateful? How could I sit there and whine about my problems, and the thoughts that told me I didn’t deserve to exist, when there were people out there who had it so, so much worse than me?
I just wasn’t willing to cooperate with my counsellor; I’d spend most of the sixty minute sessions sat in complete silence, only offering brief monosyllabic responses to any of her attempts to interact with me. It was either that or the ever-frequent eye rolls I’d direct at her when she’d try to get me to engage in any exercises she had planned. I must have seemed impossible. I was adamant, after the experience with the doctor, that no one would ever understand how I felt – at most, they’d reiterate what I already knew: that I was a spoiled teen who didn’t know how good she had it.
I sometimes wonder how differently things would have been had I not found myself being shamed into complete, despairing silence about my mental health issues as a teen – would it have prevented the breakdown I had at my first university, that forced me to drop out and withdraw from my studies after just a semester of studying? For a long time, I wasn’t ready to speak to anyone about how I felt; I wasn’t ready to break that silence; I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was deserving of help and that my feelings were valid.
It took me until the age of 19 to be able to come to terms with this misplaced guilt, and to allow myself to become comfortable to speak freely at the therapy/CBT sessions of services I have since attended. Maybe it’s because, as I’ve become more of an active campaigner, I’ve learned just how many young people encounter invalidation due to their age when speaking of mental health issues. The ignorance is so widespread, and so it is important for anyone who has been through it to speak out and expose just how damaging being told ‘you’re only young’ can be to a person who is depressed, anxious, or even suicidal. It’s been throughout campaigning that I’ve learned the value of talking, of being open about my mental health – providing I am comfortable with it.
In order to get the most out of therapy, the reality of the situation is that you have to be willing to give what you can. You know how the old cliché goes: the more you put in, the more you get out. Since then l have felt more empowered and more confident – even able to participate in and be more vocal during group therapy sessions. Now, at 21, I am back in therapy – this time, Compassion Based Therapy. I do still have some issues being kind to and patient with myself – I guess that little voice of guilt will always chip away at me – but I can now say I no longer greet therapy with the same disinterest, distance and difficulty I was once did aged 14. I’ve learnt to give therapy a chance, meaning that the sessions, although at times overwhelming, are finally helping me to manage all the feelings and thoughts I have. To my former 14 year old self, and to anyone out there reading, I promise, it gets better.
This World Mental Health Day, please know that you are never alone and that you are deserving of help. If you want to know more, the charity the Mental Health Foundation has an incredibly helpful website, filled with thorough and informative advice covering all areas across the very broad spectrum of ‘mental health’.