Learning that 1 in 4 young people admits to experiencing a mental health condition is horrible to hear. I believe that there would be many more that either haven’t realised their struggles are due to a mental health condition, or are too scared/ashamed/embarrassed to admit their struggles. How can one ‘not know’ they are suffering? From my own experiences I put this down to not only the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, but also the lack of education and awareness around these issues.
My story started around 4 years ago. I was working in a great job. I was in a happy long-term relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I was living with one of my friends. What did I have to worry about?
It wasn’t until one afternoon catching up for coffee with a friend when I cracked. I lost it. What was wrong with me? Why was I so upset? I was so confused. I thought I was just having a normal catch up with a friend, why was I so emotional? It was at that moment my dear friend said she wanted to talk to me about my anxieties. Up until this point in my twenty-something years of life, I didn’t even know what anxiety really was, yet my friend was informing me it was exactly what I was suffering from.
A week later, after a standard train-ride to work, as I entered the office to start the day, I experienced my very first panic attack. I had no idea what was happening. It was terrifying. Why couldn’t I breathe? Why was I so upset? The workday hadn’t even started, what was my problem? Once I calmed down, I met with my supervisors and nervously admitted to them “I think I’m suffering from anxiety.” What shocked me the most is not how supportive they were, but that they weren’t the least bit surprised that I was struggling with anxiety. How was I the only one to not realise I was suffering? Looking back, there were so many moments that screamed I was struggling. I just thought it was ‘normal’ to cry daily, normal to not turn up to social events, normal to feel sick to my stomach with worry, normal to not sleep. Looking back now I think I was suffering for many years, but I never knew that these issues were worth seeking help for or worth speaking up about. I thought that was just my life.
Adolescence is a time of physical, emotional and social change; it is not surprising that these changes can cause stress and worry and have a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing. These changes are a part of life and a part of growing up. The question that needs to be asked here is how do we support young people through these important years, so that they can safely tackle any battles they face along the way? Or even better, how do we take a preventative approach to try and minimise the risks of them suffering from a mental health condition?
I do believe there IS a little more awareness surrounding anxiety and depression now, especially with the power of social media. But I am still aware of the stigma surrounding these conditions. One of the many campaigns suggest “it’s ok to not be ok”, but is this message being received by everyone?! And yes I absolutely agree that it’s ok to not be ok, but where do we go for help when we aren’t ‘ok’? What are schools doing to educate youth on mental health? Are teachers equipped with the resources to teach this? Are teachers educated themselves to see the signs of students struggling with their mental health? Does this responsibility even fall on the teachers? How about parents; what is their role in educating their children in mental health and reading the signs of their children struggling? Where do we go to then? Psychologists, which can require waiting days or weeks to get into an appointment? Doctors? Friends? Work colleges/supervisors? I believe every single person needs to play a role in promoting mental health awareness and removing the stigma surrounding it.
Education needs to be at the forefront to ensure we are improving youth mental health. Teaching young people what different mental health conditions can look like; all of the many signs and symptoms, and what to do if they think they may be or their peers may be suffering. We need to teach young people how to get in touch with their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and also to learn the power of mindfulness. We need to teach different strategies that they can use to deal with their stresses, and the power of exercise and proper nutrition. Education along with speaking up and breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health I believe is a part of the solution. This is how we decrease the prevalence of mental health conditions suffered by young people today.
Many of my anxieties stemmed from a build up of worry and self-doubt that I bottled up and kept to myself, and was often too embarrassed to say out loud. Asking for help is scary, but everyone has a voice and we all deserve to be heard, no matter how big or small our problem is. The more we speak up, the more we allow others to speak up, and those who are ready and feel brave enough almost have a responsibility to do so, to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
What my experience has shown me is there is not enough awareness and education around mental health. What I know now and wish I knew back then, makes me wonder if I would have responded to certain situations differently, if I had a better understanding of my feelings and emotions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we can’t change the past. All we can do is try and learn from our experiences so others don’t have to suffer and struggle in silence.
If you would like to learn more about how you can support a young person to manage their anxiety Headspace has some great resources on their website.