Reflecting on World mental health day..
Updated: Oct 11, 2018
As part of mental health day 2018 I delivered a presentation about my journey with mental illness and what 'mental health' is to a group of young people in my old school. It has been three years since I left school and it has always been a pleasure to go back and see familiar faces. But, it always triggers mixed and conflicting emotions.
As with many others my illness began during the time I was in school, but differently to a lot of people, the school I attended was incredibly supportive. I formed very important relationships with a handful of staff, and I maintain to this day that their efforts are one of the main reasons I am still alive today. I'm always happy to return and catch up with those who did so much for me. However, I can't forget the hell I went through in that place at that time.
As I was driving up I had a reel of memories playing in my head - if this was a sitcom, a sad song like the Fray's 'How to save a life' would have been playing in the background. Memories of full blown meltdowns, locking myself in toilet cubicles during devastating panic attacks and having staff try to get the door open to help me, breakdowns triggered by hallucinations, running away from school, seriously self harming, running out of lessons in blind panic, acting on self destructive and suicidal urges, staff having to carry me because I was too weak to walk, the fire alarm causing me to lie down outside in the pouring rain in sensory overload, and more. I was completely out of control, I was impulsive and I really struggled to communicate what was happening in my head - which often led to a breaking point of explosive, self destructive behaviour.
Going back and having these kind of memories triggered is difficult but it gives me the opportunity to reflect on how far I've come. Yes, I still struggle - but I have a certain amount of control now, I can definitely deal with impulses and urges much better and I've learned healthy ways to communicate. I've come a long way since that frightened girl in school uniform.
Upon talking to familiar faces whilst at the school I'm forced to reflect on the actions taken by those in my support system at the time. The teachers, members of pastoral care, and members of the leading team were thrust into a situation where they had to assume the role of professional psychiatric staff, but without the training. I was very poorly, and although I was technically accessing children's mental health services (CAMHS) at the time I was not receiving the level of professional support I needed to keep me safe. The school had to pick up the slack and try to keep me alive. Some days they'd have to watch me like psychiatric nurses on a psychiatric ward do, they'd be the first in to deal with the situation when I'd self harmed, they'd be the ones who got in their cars and went searching when I walked out, comforted me when I was panicking or having and autism related meltdown, sitting with me during episodes of distressing hallucinations and delusions, constantly on the phone trying to get answers and help from mental health services, trying to keep my parents involved, prompting me to take medication when I needed to and so on.
It wasn't until after I left and went back about a year later that I learned the impact it had on those school staff. I learned that some of them would go home and cry, I learned that they'd be so worried I was going to kill myself that they couldn't sleep, I learned of the stress and strain of trying to keep me alive had caused. It worries me that this is how our system is operating at the moment. It wasn't fair that the burden fell to those who did not have the training, the expertise or the resources. I was lucky to have been in place that cared so much and that was willing to carry that enormous burden. I know of others who haven't had that and as a result been asked to leave their school.
This series of events is all because the place in which specialist care should be provided simply cant provide it. Not out a lack of motivation or willingness, but because of woeful underfunding, under staffing and under resourcing. Don't get me wrong, CAMHS seems to be pinned as the holy grail for treatment of all - which it isn't. CAMHS is a specialist service to provide treatment and support for those with serious mental illness. The increasing levels of distress amongst young people has seen referrals to CAMHS shoot upwards at an exponential rate. But CAMHS is not the right place for the majority of these people. They definitely need some kind of support but it doesn't exist and so CAMHS takes the brunt of it. With huge waiting lists, a completely overloaded services, over worked professionals, unable to provide reliable and appropriate treatment and support to those who need it.
Where is the middle ground? The place for those in distress that need help but don't need specialist care? Schools are picking up the pieces, how do we help them? What part can young people play in this?
In my story the result of it all was that despite being very ill and needing that specialist care I couldn't get it. The school I attended did their damned hardest to support me and my family, but they shouldn't have been put in that position. I went through so much pain and anguish for such a long time, and those around me suffered also.
World mental health day is a great way to raise awareness, but we also need to be looking at the service provision and fixing the problems if we are ever going to have a mentally healthy society.
v little me on my first day of secondary school...