This week I was invited back to my old school to talk about mental health in assemblies as part of Mental Health Awareness week. I was honoured to be given this opportunity but also terrified, school hadn’t always been a happy place for me. The night before I asked myself, “what exactly have I agreed to do?” and woke up asking the same question. I arrived at school this morning and the main hall was set up for exams, my mind raced back to some 10/12 years earlier when I was sitting in that main hall, ploughing through my GCSE’S and A levels. I gave three assemblies to different year groups, talking about my own experiences and making my former tutor cry as a result. Her words at the end: “I would have never imagined you standing up there, doing this when you were at school,” have stuck with me all day. I’m proud to have been able to speak to the young people who are sitting where I used to be. I thought I’d share what I told those young people:
The rest of this assembly is going to be a bit more personal, but I hope more profound and meaningful.
I’m going to start by telling you that this absolutely terrifies me. Mental health is all about talking about how we feel, so I’m going to tell you how I feel. I would have never believed, when I was a student here, that I’d be back in this main hall giving an assembly and discussing my feelings on top. So yes, I’m terrified but very proud to be here and honoured to be kicking off Mental Health Awareness Week.
I left Whickham just over ten years ago now (which is pretty scary!) While I was sitting in this building, learning about Shakespeare in English, practicing my violin in Music and trying to get my head around algebra in Maths, I was also dealing with uncontrollable feelings of anxiety. I never did get the algebra, but I did eventually start to understand that it is okay to talk about the thoughts in my head. I began to realise that it was perfectly normal not to feel okay, and that I was part of a 1 in 4.
It all started when I was 12, in year 8, during a PE lesson. It was a nice summers day and we were outside playing netball. I started to feel hot, at first I put it down to the weather but it felt like it was more than just this. I couldn’t vocalise to anyone how I felt, and this made the feelings worse. I felt faint. I thought I was going to throw up. I needed to sit down before I fell over. I just didn’t want to be around people or in a game of netball at all. I managed to get away from the game and the PE lesson, after comments from my teacher saying that “I was walking funny.” No one ever asked if I was okay, when I was in the middle of what I now recognise as an anxiety attack. At the time, I was a scared 12 year old girl who just wanted to run away from it all. I walked back to the changing room, turned off all the lights and lay down on the floor in the dark. I felt alone, worried and I couldn’t talk about how I was feeling because no one gave me the tools to know how. Eventually teachers noticed that I was missing from PE, and the school nurse came to find me. She took me through the school to her office. As I walked along the corridor, I didn’t say a word, I was still feeling the post anxiety brain fog when you feel disconnected from the environment around you. I was overwhelmed by these feelings and my eyes started to fill with tears. Holding back tears, I asked for a glass of water and on her return she handed me the glass of water, and a leaflet about bullying. There was no mention of mental health and that what I could be feeling was anxiety. That day I spent the whole of lunchtime crying in the toilets, I didn’t know what to do.
As I got older the anxiety stayed with me. I’d be scared to go to school and tried to isolate myself from everyone around me. I adopted my own methods of self-care, I played the violin to distract myself from my anxious thoughts and wrote down how I was feeling in a diary at the end of each day. I came to school hoping that I wouldn’t be picked on to answer a question in maths and that we wouldn’t be made to do group work again in History. Getting something wrong, and everyone laughing filled me with dread.
In 6th form, the stress of exams and the feelings of what am I meant to do with my life? resurfaced. But this time it was slightly different, the fear of having to leave school and go to university took over. I developed anxiety and depression, but still as best I could, kept it hidden. I didn’t talk. No one had any idea. Eventually my feelings started to affect my school work, so I ended up talking to my youth worker, the first person to mention the words “Mental Health” to me. She encouraged me to ring the Samaritans and kept me talking when I felt low. So, I spent much of year 12 and 13, standing outside the school gates, during lunchtimes, breaks, and frees talking to whoever happened to be at the other end of the phone. No one had any idea this was going on or that I felt so lost with my thoughts. I then opened up to my history teacher, who dealt with my personal statement anxiety and sat with me while I explained how I was feeling on bad days. Filling in a UCAS application form, when your brain is telling you you’re awful and that you won’t get anywhere anyway, is a mountain to climb that few understood.
Eventually I did go and see a doctor, and several years later accessed talking therapy and a prescription for anti-depressants.
In the last few years, I have cancelled plans with friends because I was too anxious to leave the house, had an anxiety attack on a train and waited three hours at a station miles away from home before I felt okay to travel again and I have convinced myself many times that no one can possibly like me or want to spend any time with me. Now I work for Time to Change, because I don’t want young people to go through what I went through. I want you all to know that it’s okay to talk if you’re having a hard time. I’m sure there are many teachers in this room who will listen.
We shouldn’t be scared of talking about mental health, we all have good days and bad – but it’s when we stop talking, the good and the bad can develop into mental illness. I hope this small snapshot into my life at Whickham has shown you what talking can do. It is often down to that supportive teacher or friend who takes the time to listen.