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It's Time to Speak up About Mental Health
Posted by harriet.martin
4th Jun 2015

I've found it very challenging to pluck up the courage to write this extremely honest, personal and delicate post. When a girl I know, Maddie Diamond, published a video to her YouTube channel describing her struggle with Anxiety and I spoke to her about it, it gave me the little nudge I needed to talk about my experience. Maddie always came across to me as a confident, grounded and successful girl without a care in the world and it just goes to show that we never really know what could be going on underneath! If anyone is struggling with Anxiety, I'd recommend giving her video a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjapvL817Jg

I think it is so important that we are open to discussing mental health, for conditions that affect out mental wellbeing seem to be becoming more and more common. Many people are still under the incorrect conclusion that mental health is not as important to maintain as physical health and that we have full control over our mind. We do not. A mental health condition could strike any one of us at any time and we need to be aware of what we face so that we can support ourselves and our loved ones.

Mental health, Depression, Anxiety, Schizophrenia and the like should not be taboo subjects. We should be able to talk about these issues and how they can seriously impact upon our lives. That is why I am writing a post detailing my personal experience with mental health problems. I am no longer ashamed of this or embarrassed to admit it.

My Story

I am currently battling Depression and have been for a long while now. It is only now though that I feel I am taking control and actually fighting the battle rather than letting the illness linger on under the surface.

It all began around two years ago, when I had just finished my A Level exams and my Mum told me she has been diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Finding out that the person I love more than anyone in the whole world had this evil poison in her body was absolutely soul-destroying On the surface, I would say I handled the news extremely well and remained a strong rock in the family to support others. I had to be strong for Mum and for my little sister. Underneath this strong and supportive exterior however, I wasn't coping at all and I am only just realising this later on when I am still feeling the effects.

Towards the end of that summer (2013), I went to see my GP to talk to her about how low I was feeling and how anxious I was about leaving for university while my Mum was going through gruelling chemotherapy treatment. She directed me to the Youth Trust, a free counselling service for young people on the Isle of Wight where I live. You are usually offered six sessions, one hour each week for six weeks but it was quite late in August at this point so I could only attend one session before I went off to University in Southampton. This didn't particularly benefit me.

The start of my University experience was pretty positive. I made friends quickly and stayed on top of all my work and was able to block out the horrors of what was going on at home when I needed to. That sounds awful. I thought about my Mum all the time and spoke to her virtually everyday, but sometimes I needed to block it out in order to cope with being away from home.

A few weeks into the Semester, I noticed I was feeling quite low and becoming withdrawn but I just dismissed it. It was only when I came home for 'Reading Week' that I realised things weren't right. The thought of returning to University filled me with dread; I couldn't leave my Mum and my little sister; I wasn't enjoying my course anymore; I didn't want to see any of my friends.

But I did return. I had to. And it was excruciating. The six weeks or so between Reading Week and the Christmas vacation mark one of the lowest points in my entire life. I stopped attending university; I missed my Spanish oral exam; I shut myself away in my room and only came out when I knew nobody else was around in the flat; I pretended to be asleep when people knocked on my door and I slept through most of the day. I couldn't bring myself to do anything. I didn't want to see anybody, apart from my boyfriend, because he understood and knew how to comfort me. Nothing could make me feel fully better though. Nothing. Not even being at home with Mum.

It got to a point where my parents intervened. They both offered their support and their advice and contacted the University to explain my situation. I managed to open up to some of my lecturers which was very relieving as they always made me feel better and that anything could be sorted out. I changed my degree from BA Spanish and French with Contemporary European Studies to BA Spanish because the Spanish was all that I truly enjoyed about my studies. I also contacted various members of the University's support network for advice and counselling after my Doctor suggested that I might be suffering from Mild Depression. I didn't keep up the counselling though.

During the Christmas vacation, I realised that the time had come to sort out accommodation for the following year, but I had become so withdrawn that I felt as though I no longer had any friends. I was too afraid to ask the friends I'd made in Halls and just wanted to live with my boyfriend instead, but Mum pushed me to get into contact with the girls. I am so thankful that she did that. Although my friends had already made arrangements with some other girls, they decided that I could live with them too and I was so grateful. At this point, I was finally back to mixing with people and socialising. The second semester was so much better. Mum completed her treatment and was getting healthier and stronger everyday. I spent a lot of time with the five girls that I would be living with for second year and found I was able to confide in them about any difficulties I had. University life felt like a far more positive experience for the rest of first year.

However, I hadn't fully addressed and dealt with the Depression that I had obviously suffered throughout the first Semester and this came back to haunt me as a result. I carried on as usual for the remainder of first year and through the summer right into second year thinking everything was fine. It is only now that I can look back and see that I haven't been 'fine' or felt 'normal' since Mum's diagnosis. She helped me to realise this when she pointed it out recently.

During my Christmas vacation of 2014, everything came crashing down again when I found out that my step-mum now also had Breast Cancer. Reliving that nightmare was horrendous, but once again, I channelled all my energy into supporting her and my Dad. Having gone through the experience with Mum, it was rewarding to be able to offer advice to Dad and Julia about procedures and treatments and be a support to them. I didn't cope though.

At the beginning of the holiday, I'd made a good start on all the work I had to do but this horrifying news set me back and I didn't feel I could do any more work. Mum was also due to give birth to my brother any day so stress levels were high and my emotions were all over the place! That horrible feeling that I experienced in first year starting taking hold again, creeping up on me and taking over. Straight away I contacted my lecturers, because it made everything so much better the first time around. I was awarded an extension for one of my essays in light of the unfortunate circumstances and managed to get everything done on time in the end. It was a dark and stressful period though. Leaving to return to university was heart-wrenching. I wanted to be at home for my step-mum and my Dad and to spend time with my new baby brother. And leaving Mum and my little sister Maddie is always hard, no matter what is going on.

Since returning to university this January to start Semester 2, my life has been a downward spiral. My step-mum really struggled with horrible chemotherapy treatments and was hospitalised on numerous occasions. My university attendance has been extremely poor. I've only just managed to submit all my assessed work. I've been terribly homesick. I've been more withdrawn and not wanted to socialise as much. I've been tearful. I have had trouble sleeping. It's been awful. I just had to keep looking ahead to my four-week long Easter holiday to get me through each day. I confided in Mum, as I always do, and she suggested booking some appointments with the Youth Trust to attend over the holidays, so I did.

When I first got back for Easter, all I could feel was relief and happiness. It was amazing to see my beautiful family and see my step-mum finish chemotherapy and being so positive and strong. Everything was 'fluffy' as my Mum would say. But this initial phase soon wore off and I felt low again. Even being at home couldn't make me feel better. What was going on? Why was this happening? I couldn't focus on any of my work. Every night my sleep was restless and I felt tired and sad all the time.

I attended all my counselling sessions and they were helpful in a lot of ways. But something still wasn't quite right. I just didn't feel right at all and Mum picked up on this. I could tell she was worried about me and I felt bad for causing her added stress, but I couldn't help it. She knows me too well. One day Mum decided to take me along to the doctor's. That was when my GP told me it looked like I had Depression that I just hadn't been able to shift. He prescribed me with the antidepressant Citalopram.

I was so detached from reality at this point that it took a while for this to all sink in. Antidepressants? Really? The thought really scared me and at first I didn't want to take them. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of medication to treat mental health conditions, but I had seen this particular tablet help people I knew so that was a comfort. I also saw it as the little boost I needed rather than something I'd totally rely on. I'd made all the right lifestyle changes - eating healthily, exercising, socialising with my friends, trying counselling etc. None of it had helped on its own so I felt that taking medication alongside these positive lifestyle changes was the best option for me.

I've been taking Citalopram for just over 4 weeks now and think I might be just starting to feel the benefits. The first three weeks or so are said to make you feel worse and that was definitely the case for me; I suffered nausea, increased anxiety and very low moods. I feel I've come out of that now, despite being back at university right in the middle of exam and essay period.

I have alerted virtually all my tutors and all the relevant support networks at University about my condition and how it has affected me. They've been absolutely brilliant and taken measures to help me get through these tough few weeks. I'm currently in the process of applying for Special Considerations so I can get extensions for assignments and the chance to re-take exams. I feel I need this greatly because I haven't been able to do work or attend university in weeks. After a horrific start to this week, I am turning things around and feeling more positive about the future. I still don't sleep well at night, suffer anxiety, feel depressive a lot of the time and struggle immensely with concentration, but I will be ok. It will just take time.

I'm so lucky to have had so much support. My boyfriend has been fantastic putting up with the emotional wreck that is his girlfriend for the past 18 months. My friends have also been wonderful, particularly my uni girlies who always know how to cheer me up and who I've been able to confide in completely. My family are my rock and I don't know what I'd do without them, especially my Mum. She knows me better than anybody and a conversation with her can make anything feel that bit better and more manageable. Cute funny messages from her and my super caring Auntie can always brighten my day. Sometimes they make me cry, but that's ok. Emotion is healthy and I need to embrace it to be able to control it also.

Final Words

So, that's my story. I have Depression and I'm taking medication to treat it. I'm not ashamed of that fact and neither should anyone else who is going through anything similar. I am taking control of my mental health and fighting this illness. It has taken me a long time and I still have a fair way to go, but I'll get there. I know I will.

For anyone out there that is suffering a mental health condition, please don't be afraid to speak up. There is nothing to be ashamed of and this shouldn't be a taboo subject. Confide in someone you can trust and make an appointment with your doctor who can advise you of all the support that is available out there. If you're at university, alert your lecturers and the relevant support services. They are fantastic and have so much to offer those of us that are struggling to cope!

And if anyone wants to speak to me about anything I've covered in this post then do feel free to send an email to harriet.martin.95@gmail.com

Let's not be afraid or embarrassed. Let's talk to the people we love and the people who can help us. Let's get the help we need and get better. It's time to speak up about mental health.

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