TW: Non-graphic mentions of Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideation.
The end of school isn’t a time I like to think about. I remember the good bits and have spent the last 14 years trying to ignore the rest but as is the way with these things, when you try to bury them, they often resurface when you least expect it. Today, I was reading this post by mental health charity, Mind, about the Hubs they want to have created to give young people a place to go to get quick and easy access to mental health support before they deteriorate on waiting lists. The descriptions they gave of children and how they’re being treated brought everything flooding back to me because despite so much progress apparently being made in society in the last 14 years, how schools, doctors surgeries and mental health services are treating young people hasn’t changed a bit. So I’m going to go back and explain what happened to me because it’s something I’ve never felt able to talk about on here, or really in real life either. I’ve told people bits and pieces or slipped sections into conversation but I’ve never really gone into detail because it was too painful and most of all, I was embarrassed and ashamed, something I should never have felt and something I hope to one day be able to move past.
I became ill with depression just before my 16th birthday. Things were bad at home, my parents weren’t getting on and I dealt with it very badly. 18 months later they were separated and 18 months after that, divorced. The month before my 16th birthday I seemed to just lose my ability to cope. Rather than taking things in my stride or believing I could cope and things would get better, I started having darker and more bleak thoughts and felt sad all the time. I spoke to a trusted teacher at school and she said to try and be nice to myself, to relax and to try and have a nice Christmas. I don’t remember much of that Christmas but I know it wasn’t good and things were at a real low in my family. By January I felt worse and wondered if I might have depression. I knew nothing about it but had heard it on TV and given that I felt sad all the time, it seemed like that might be what was wrong so I eventually asked my mum to take me to the doctors. It was a total waste of time. The doctor was really dismissive and said it was the time of year, that it was January Blues and “Every teenager in the country feels like this at the moment”. It’ll pass. I said to her that if that was the case there were going to be a lot of dead teenagers but she sent me home with no diagnosis, no help and no treatment.
By February, I was coping much worse and for the first time in my life I started self-harming. I vividly remember the date and the circumstances that led to that, even 14 years on. I’m absolutely terrified of pain, verging on phobic about it. I avoid pain at all costs, am phobic of needles and completely freak out at the idea that something will hurt. And yet, here I was self-harming. At first it was maybe once or twice a week, it certainly didn’t stay that way. 6 weeks after my first appointment, I asked to go to the doctors again, I was now regularly self-harming and seriously contemplating suicide and wishing I was dead. She immediately referred me to CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services). A few weeks later I was assessed by CAMHS and within 10 minutes I was diagnosed with depression and put on anti-depressants. No therapy, no talking about the root cause, no explanation to me or my next of kin about the effects these meds could have on me whilst taking them or if I stopped suddenly, just a prescription for some pills. Soon after this I started restricting my food intake.
The whole of this chunk of my life is hazy at best. There are milestone moments that I remember but the day-to-day and the exact order everything happened is really hazy because I was so unwell at the time. I became hugely sleep deprived and was sleeping under 4 hours a night. I’ve always had major sleep problems but this was in another league. By February or March I was seeing the school counsellor and while she was lovely, it was fraught with problems. I got kind of obsessed with her and completely reliant on the one adult that was actually listening to me and taking me seriously. She didn’t know me very well and didn’t really seem equipped to deal with someone as severely ill as I was becoming and quite honestly, I think she was out of her depth but she was all I had. She made various promises about what would and wouldn’t be kept between us and so I knew where the boundaries were. Unfortunately, and again, my memory of this event is really not clear, at some point she agreed not to tell my parents something, possibly about the extent of my self-harm, I don’t actually know, but then went back on her word and didn’t tell me so the first I knew of it was my mum appearing in a school corridor after she’d been called in. It turns out, despite being a pretty composed and collected person, I don’t react at all well to being cornered or surprised. I refused to go home and ran off to go and find my trusted teacher who helped calm me down. I don’t remember what happened after that but I never trusted or confided in the counsellor again.
As I deteriorated further, my sleep remained bad, self-harm increased and I was losing weight. My nurse at CAMHS was an eating disorder specialist nurse who seemed like she’d never met a person with an eating disorder in her life. Every week I’d be asked how I was doing, every week I’d tell her I was worse because my life was starting to spiral out of control. I know that must sound like typical teenage angst but it genuinely wasn’t and things were worsening at home and my depression and symptoms surrounding that were worsening too. I was also months away from leaving school and having to go through huge changes which I also don’t cope well with. Every week she’d tell me “Well you’re looking better”. I’d be weighed each week and she’d make unhelpful comments if I’d stayed the same or gained weight which just spurred me on to reduce my calorie intake further. At no point did they give me any techniques to be more resilient or to learn to take things in my stride again and I was mostly just told to hold ice or ping rubber bands so that I stopped self-harming and to focus on the future when I could move out (a likely 3 or 4 years in the future). Suffice to say, none of that helped.
In May, my Grandad was hospitalised and died a few weeks later. My anti-depressants weren’t helping and just made me feel numb and I knew it was bad if people didn’t process death and this was the first death I was exposed to so I came off the meds. My family were furious and my nurse and doctor at CAMHS were equally unimpressed. I was told off which felt really unfair given that I’d done it for the best reasons. Again, I don’t remember the circumstances fully but I had an appointment with CAMHS and my trusted teacher offered to attend with me as it was just round the corner from my school. She came but the appointment went very badly and I ended up in floods of tears with her outside on the pavement refusing to go back to school because I felt so helpless. Unbeknownst to me, this triggered her to need to leave school for the day. That night I slept for 2.5 hours. I woke up at 5.30am and just couldn’t be in the house anymore and decided I was going to go out. I wrote a note to my family explaining that I’d gone out and taken my school stuff and would attend school on time but I just couldn’t be in the house. I walked to the beach and sat there watching the sunrise. My mum kept calling me and I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to talk to her knowing I’d be told off. I knew it was dangerous to go out in the dark at 16 years old but I just couldn’t stay in the house. Eventually something in me told me I had to answer the phone and mum asked where I was. I said I wouldn’t tell her but that I was safe and was going to go to school. She was very insistent that I had to tell her where I was. I eventually did and before I knew it she pulled up in the car and made me get in. It was there that she explained I had been excluded from school. I didn’t believe her and thought she was just trying to scare me or punish me for “running away”. I hadn’t done anything wrong and school couldn’t know yet that I’d run away so I couldn’t possibly be excluded but she explained she’d had a phonecall from the school the previous day and because I’d upset the teacher, they couldn’t have me in school while I was “behaving like this”. My world fell apart. I had exams coming up, my leavers’ service and my school prom and I was told that I could do my exams in isolation and I wouldn’t be allowed to attend anything else, no last lessons, no leavers service, no prom. They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to my friends. Thankfully, one of my exams was a 5 hour textiles exam which had to be done in school and they eventually agreed that if I “behaved” in that, that they’d consider letting me attend my leavers events. Being someone who was good as gold throughout school and never once got sent out of class or given detention, that wasn’t difficult and after a week of exclusion they agreed to allow me back in class and to my leavers events as long as I “promised to behave”, whatever that meant. I still don’t actually understand what rules I broke or what I was specifically excluded for other than accidentally upsetting a teacher who was probably inadvertently triggered because my experience was a bit too close to home. I attended all of my leavers’ events and lessons without incident.
At college, it had been handed over that I had mental health problems and I had to have a meeting with someone before attending. The ‘rules’ were spelled out about not being allowed to self-harm on the premises and that I’d potentially be expelled if I did. For the avoidance of any doubt, I’ve never self-harmed anywhere other than at home and I’ve never carried dangerous objects or showed anyone my injuries unless made to and my injuries never required medical treatment or intervention of any kind. It was such a humiliating experience. I completely understand that of course it would be completely inappropriate to self-harm on school, college or workplace property which is why I’ve never done it but it’s so embarrassing having that spelled out in detail to you and you being talked to like you’re some kind of deviant or criminal. Self-harm for me was always a coping strategy and a means of survival. It’s why I don’t feel ashamed of my scars and why I no longer deliberately cover them up because I’m sure I’d be dead if I didn’t have them and hadn’t got through in that way. I’m never going to apologise for that because to apologise for self-harming would be to apologise for being alive and doing what it took to survive those times.
I managed to hold it together for a few months at college but I felt like I was falling apart. My eating disorder worsened and I was very close to being diagnosed with Anorexia. I’m not sure if I ever did get an official diagnosis or not but I was told I had Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Anorexia Type because I was slightly over the weight at which I’d be classed as Anorexic. I was cold all the time, I felt faint a lot and just completely miserable and overwhelmed. I had been put on a different anti-depressant just after my 17th birthday which made me dangerously suicidal (again with no prior warning of this possibility given to me or my next of kin) and so I took myself off that after 4 weeks. Again, I was told off for this but I absolutely maintain that I’d be dead if I’d remained on it because the suicidal thoughts and feelings were so intense. I was put on a third a couple of months later which made me sick which really didn’t help my eating disorder, I was taken off that one after just a few weeks.
Thankfully, my dad had private medical insurance with his work that covered the whole family and my GP at the time (a different one from the previous year) suggested going private. I spent a couple of months having check-ups whilst I deteriorated and in that May (2018) I said I couldn’t keep myself safe and didn’t want to and that if they left me at home, I wouldn’t be alive to see the next appointment. Within days I was admitted to a private psychiatric hospital for what was initially meant to be 4 weeks and turned into 9 weeks and I was only discharged then because the private medical insurance funding ran out. My parents separated while I was in hospital and I was discharged to my new house having visited it once. I stayed in outpatient therapy for months after that.
My physical health deteriorated, probably because of the sheer strain of the mental illness I’d been suffering from relentlessly for 18+ months and my attendance at college dropped hugely as I became functionally nocturnal because my insomnia got so bad. College threatened to take me off my courses when my attendance dropped below 50% despite it being entirely because of illness. I fought and fought to be kept on so that I didn’t have to do another year and finally managed to get them to agree but it was very begrudging on their part. Yet again, I was treated like I was skiving and not bothering to turn up, rather than so ill and so sleep-deprived that I was asleep at home during lesson times because it was the only time my brain would shut off enough. I eventually managed to drag myself through my A Levels and after some retakes I managed to get the grades I needed to go to University the following year.
Throughout these experiences it didn’t feel like I was treated fairly. I wasn’t naughty or disobedient, I wasn’t acting up or misbehaving. I was ill. I had a challenging homelife, I’d been physically ill from the age of 9 with ME/CFS which led to lots of disruption and an abnormal childhood and I’d been bullied a lot and after it all caught up with me, I was then treated like I was bad. I understand that it must be really hard for schools to know how to handle children like me, they’re experts in teaching but they’re rarely trained in mental health but what worries me most is that in 14 years it seems that almost nothing has changed and so many mentally ill children are still being treated like they’re naughty and punished and penalised for symptoms and behaviours that they simply aren’t in control of or to blame for. It has to change. We have to believe children, to take them seriously and intervene quickly and robustly. We need to give them understanding, teach them coping techniques and not punish them for symptoms of mental illness that they can’t help. I was a model student with an exemplary record throughout my time at school and it’s beyond embarrassing to remember that I was excluded because I was so ill. We must do better.