Ellie, 16

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When I first started battling with my mental health, I thought the mental illness would be the hardest think to deal with - little did I know that other people's reactions to said mental illness would make the battle into a war. Ultimately it feels like an attack on you, as your illness is part of who you are. In reality, it's due to a lack of understanding. 

Being called ‘dramatic’ in the midst of a panic attack is the last word you expect to hear. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the word I was faced with. To them, that word was a passing comment. They probably don’t remember saying it. To me, it was confirmation of everything my mental illness tells me. You see, the thing is, mental illness is all in my mind. Anxiety itself tells me I’m being ‘dramatic’, and their words confirmed that. Their fleeting words are the reason people like me struggle on in silence. Their words are the reason why I convince myself I’m ‘not anxious’, I’m ‘making it all up’, I ‘don’t have a problem’ and I definitely ‘don’t need help’. Their reaction of ‘dramatic’ to me having a panic attack made me never want to seek support in my most vulnerable moments, when support is exactly what I needed.

I was 17 when somebody I work with, somebody I should’ve trusted, told me I’d never get a boyfriend because of ‘the way I am’. Anxiety tells me I’m hard to love. I’ve always felt like the way my mental illness can make me act is a burden on other people. It makes me needy, emotional, clingy, and it makes me fearful. Not exactly factors people look for in a potential partner. They took my mental illness and they used it against me. They made me believe I was unworthy of love and that nobody would be able to cope with the ‘way I am’. Talking to new people and potential partners is hard, and they made that harder because why would anyone want to get to know me, let alone love me?

They were so wrong. Mental illness makes me the person I am today. It makes me determined, it makes me brave and it makes me ridiculously strong willed. Mostly, it makes me who I am and I am worthy of being loved despite it and because of it. 

During my gap year I was told I’d never go to university. Separation anxiety says to me; home is where you belong. Home is where you should be. Home will you keep you safe. I believed that and evidently so did they. Their reaction to me struggling to stay away from home made me believe there was no point in dreaming, no point in aspiring to do anything that involved leaving my home town. Home equaled my comfort zone and their words tried to keep me in it.

I proved them wrong though. Their reaction motivated me to try. I’m in my third year now and I’m thriving. The little scared girl, who couldn’t even go to sleepovers, left home. Sometimes, those words still ring true in my mind, and they make university a struggle as homesickness is overpowering. I crave the safety of home but I’ve found that in a new way at university; in a tiny little room, surrounded by people who push me to be the best version of me I possibly can be. A version of me who brushes off comments like those and dreams a little bigger now.

If you are trying to understand mental illness, thank you. You are the reason people like me have the courage to open up about our experiences. We don’t expect you to understand our mental illness in its entirety - half the time we don’t understand it ourselves. All we want is for you to see us as whole people, beyond a mental health label and the stereotypes that come hand in hand with diagnosis. I’ve come to accept my struggle and hopefully one day in the future, everyone else will too. 

Smiling Teen Boy
Jonathan, 17

At school, while I had a few friends, I often struggled to connect with people. This was mainly down to my parents disapproving of my friends, which led to me isolating myself. I started to sink into deep depression. I didn’t understand how I felt at the time and I did not feel able to talk about my battles with depression and anxiety, so I put my problems down to general school worries and teenage hormones.

This view was reinforced by my teachers and my family. Rather than confronting my issues, they believed I was a miserable person who just needed to “stop worrying and cheer up” and it was all part of being a teenager. This made me believe that my problems didn’t need to be taken seriously and that eventually they would go away, if I just tried a bit harder.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. They didn’t go away, and in fact things started to get even worse as I left school, lost previous friendships and felt no support from my sixth form. I put most of this down to the view that I was a cold person, who couldn’t make friends. So I ended up blaming myself for my own depression.

With nowhere to turn during sixth-form, my time there was miserable. I failed to make friends and it culminated in a panic attack/nervous breakdown as I walked away from a math exam. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, I hid what I had experienced during the examination period, and felt a deep sense of shame towards myself for not being able to overcome my anxieties. 

Eventually I managed to scrape through college, completing an additional year and then getting into university. I began to understand my mental health more at university but this only really started when my dad passed away during my 2nd year. This forced me to think more about my mental health as I went through the process of grief and, through speaking with my personal tutor and counsellor, I began to open up more about my feelings. However, this was only related to the grief and I still didn’t talk about my previous history of depression, anxiety and of issues such as depersonalisation disorder.

After starting a Master’s course, I gradually pushed myself to meet new people and began to make a few more friendships, which helped me to talk more about my mental health issues. The more I talked the better I felt and I discovered that the people I was talking too had similar issues and similar histories and didn’t express any stigma towards me or my mental health struggles.

This encouraged me to take on a more proactive role towards my mental health. This include writing about it in my dissertation. I came to realize there were so many therapies and support networks available at university and outside for people with depression and anxiety. I had never even thought of anxiety as something that deserved treatment, but after talking to a counsellor and discussing my past and going on a weekly basis to discuss how I was feeling, I began to understand that I did deserve help and my issues were real.

However, I have also become more aware of stigma, and how negative media portrayals can affect both myself and others. Most noticeably, I am resistant to getting labelled as ”depressed” or “bipolar” by the doctor or to be given medication. And I’ve definitely been viewed differently since I began talking more about my mental health. I’ve been pitied, talked down to and viewed as different. But I’ve also been hugely supported within the last year, and felt more courage to talk about my issues, get help for them and learn how to manage them better.

I am hoping that others won’t have to go through the lack of support that I had when I was in school and that people, not just students but staff as well, understand mental health issues better and understand the power that stigma has to affect youngsters. If there had been better education and understanding at my schools towards mental health, then I would have felt more able to talk about these issues with people rather than hiding them away. For me, education and understanding is key to helping those who are struggling. I hope in the future, other students won’t have to go through what I did.

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Maddi, 15
Red Deer

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Here’s the thing. People with anxiety are not paper dolls. They won’t snap in half if you even so much as breathe in their direction – so why are people with anxiety still treated as though there’s something wrong with them?

I’ve had an anxiety disorder since I was 14 years old, and still I find that people treat me differently than they used to. I experience anxiety in two forms, as panic attacks, which are terrifying experiences, albeit very brief. The panic attacks feel like a massive whoosh of fear and worries swirling round my head. During my panic attacks, I experience physical symptoms of shaking, hyperventilating, dizziness, and nausea. The other form of anxiety I experience is underlying anxiety. It's subtle, but constant. I feel like people are always laughing at me, like none of my friends genuinely like me, I overanalyse every single thing I say. My anxiety is definitely a part of me, but what some people fail to understand is that I am not defined solely by my mental health disorder.

I started to notice a change in the way that people treated me once they found out about my anxiety, whether I told them, or whether they saw me experiencing a panic attack. Teachers, friends, and fellow students started to talk to me in soft, hushed tones. People started to touch me gently as though I was a fragile ornament, as though something too abrasive would tip me over the edge. People stopped sharing information with me, for fear of overloading me. And don’t get me wrong – I love that people care. I LOVE that people are trying to accommodate anxiety. What I don’t love is that when people treat me like a breakable object, it makes me feel weak.

Treating me differently actually makes me more worried, because it makes my irrational brain think that they don’t like me, that they’re only putting up with me because they have to – I can practically taste their exasperation. Sometimes, their gentleness is warranted, on days where my anxiety is particularly flared up, when I’m feeling emotionally fragile. Sometimes I need reassurance that my friends don’t hate me. Sometimes I need my teachers to talk me through my essays over and over to convince me I’m not completely useless. But there’s a difference between supporting me, and making me feel weak and incompetent. Sometimes I do need help, but sometimes I just want to feel normal again.

I understand that it’s difficult to separate the person from the disorder, but people with anxiety disorders are really just people – I promise! When you see a friend or a relative experiencing anxiety, it’s strange and frightening. (It’s frightening for us as well!) Try to remember that they are still the same person. I have anxiety, but I’m not just anxious, I’m also childish, introspective, (sometimes!) funny, opinionated, sarcastic, clever, and brave. I’m grateful for your support, and for your kindness, but please try to remember – I am still Maddie.

Chris, 20

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Many people know me as the person who laughs, smiles and jokes. But not many people know me as the person with a mental health condition. The reason for that is that there is no way of telling if somebody has a mental health condition.

In 2014 I first started noticing that I was struggling. Low motivation, low moods, no energy to do things. Also known as depression. The issue is, depression isn’t like a broken leg. You can’t tell just by looking at someone whether or not they have depression. And it was for that very reason that mine went unnoticed by people around me. With the massive stigma surrounding depression, I never told anyone.

Some people think that depression is just a bad day. But actually, it is a long-term mental illness. When I did open up about my depression, many just brushed it off as a bad day. When I had issues with motivation, it was made to look like laziness. Low moods hidden by fake smiles. 

Due to having motivational issues, my attendance in school dropped. Punctuality for me was a major issue. Instead of giving a space to talk, teachers would just question why I was late, in a way that portrayed me as lazy and not caring. One teacher even said just to “try harder” when I did try to open up about having problems with concentration and motivation.

I didn't feel like there was anybody to open up to at school. Other students teased me, and I feared talking to teachers due to them being obligated to inform parents. Coming from an Asian family, there is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding around mental health. Many think depression is just ‘sadness’ or ‘moodiness’.

Because I was struggling with low moods and lack of motivation, I decided to get counselling through an online organisation. I had counselling for half a year, which then had to come to an end. Although I would definitely say that it was helpful to clear my thoughts and have a better understanding of my own mental health, it didn’t change how I was feeling.

A few months after counselling ended, I had my first experience of being suicidal. I still remember it like it was last week. Feeling suicidal is something that people can struggle to fully understand unless they've been through it themselves. The feeling of wishing not to be alive so much that you want to end your own life. That night I reached out to a friend online to tell her how I was feeling. She listened to me and gave me the opportunity to clear my thoughts.

I find talking with friends, going for long walks whilst listening to music and watching TV helps my mental health. Due to all the issues that were going on at this time, I was unable to do these. 

Many people tell those who are suffering from depression “you just need to get out more” or “you don’t look depressed”. Here’s the problem: I am somebody who spends more time out and about than indoors and I cycle four miles a day. I also laugh more than most people I know. But these things don’t invalidate my depression. These just show how misconstrued depression is.

Depression is more than just sadness. It’s having no feelings at all. It’s overthinking or not being able to think at all. Due to the stigma of mental health, these emotions are not always acknowledged by those around you. Instead of helping, some people tell you to “get over it”. Mental illness is not something you can simply “get over”. 

Where I am on my journey to recovery I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that I am further along than I was this time last year. I am working for a better future for those that will have mental health issues in their life. I want to help shape a future that is stigma free.

Society needs to have a better understanding of mental health and for it to be just as accepted as physical health.

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