The first time I realised depression was an illness, not a choice or a lifestyle or any other stupid idea, I was eighteen and had been going through it for nearly a year. After eighteen years of education, I had no idea what mental illness really was. That’s a scary realisation. Four years later, I check Facebook once in a while and it is filled with people I went to school with talking about their depression or their anxiety. I wonder if any of them understood what was happening when their depression set in. Did they realise what they were feeling was because of their mental illness? Did they know what they were going through? I sure as hell didn’t, and honestly, I doubt any of them really did either.
Eighteen years of education and I had no idea what mental illness looked like. Why? Because I was never taught about it. Never once was depression or anxiety spoken about at high school. For me, this is where the stigma around mental illness gets really dangerous. You don’t teach a young child how to talk about their feelings, their mental health, their general health – you’re teaching them that they shouldn’t be talking about those things. Because even if they never experience mental illness themselves, they will experience it anyway. That statistic of ‘1 in 4 people has a mental illness’ means everyone will experience mental illness in some way – whether directly or indirectly. By not teaching young people how to deal with that, you are perpetuating the stigma that mental illness is to be avoided at all cost. That is dangerous.
Children, teenagers, young adults, whatever you want to call them – they need to be taught about this kind of thing. But the stigma that surrounds mental illness is probably at its most potent in schools, possible without them even realising it. I get that it’s a scary prospect to be faced with, I really do understand that. But it’s even scarier to think about the 16-year-olds contemplating (or even committing) suicide because of the pressure to be ‘cool’ (or whatever the term is these days) or to pass their exams. It’s scary and heartbreaking to think about the teenagers who can’t talk about their feelings because they don’t know what those feelings are and what they mean. Surely kids need to be learning – or at least talking – about this stuff as early as possible. No, it isn’t very pleasant to think about teaching tiny kids about depression, and perhaps that isn’t even necessary. But we do need to be teaching them how to deal with negative feelings, why we have them, how we have them, what the warning signs are. We need to be teaching them how to look out for signs in other kids because, like it or not, the playground is a minefield of feelings being kept secret.
Self-care was something that was also never spoken about. To my knowledge, treatment of mental illness, up until I needed it myself, meant being locked away in a padded cell and taking scary-sounding pills like (God forbid) Prozac. I’m pretty ashamed of that now. But I wasn’t being taught any different, and it was only as I got older and common-sense (and the knowledge that it was the 21st Century) kicked in that I started to question that. Until I was eighteen, it never occurred to me that looking after my mental health was something I should be doing. I know. (Side note: I told my 15-year-old sister I was taking some time for self-care i.e. having a bath, and she looked at me like I was going to kick puppies for fun.)
Children who don’t feel able to discuss their mental health turn into adults who don’t feel able to discuss their mental health and that cycle will keep on turning until someone or something changes it. It’s only through teaching myself about mental illness, having incredibly supportive family and friends and being fortunate enough to have access to services like Mind, Samaritans etc. that I was able to understand what was happening to me. And then I was able to talk about it. Maybe it isn’t that simple – and I know it certainly isn’t for everyone – but it would do so much good if we were taught from a young age about mental health.
Maybe this is different in other countries, maybe things like this are part of the curriculum in other parts of the world. I doubt it, but maybe. I am in the UK, and this is what my experience was like. I completely understand that some people may be lucky enough to have no clue what I’m talking about. I also don’t want people to think that I’m ungrateful for the education that I did get, and the help I’ve got for my mental health. I am so, so, so grateful for the things I’ve been privileged enough to have, when others have nothing. I know this probably sounds like one big preach to some people, but I honestly, honestly think it’s such an important thing that needs to be talked about. I hope one day soon I can do something about it.
Also, if there’s anyone who wants to talk or needs advice or feels like they’re alone, feel free to message me / talk to me / whatever. I’m not a professional by any means, but I have been told I’m a pretty good listener. I think I’ll post a list of places to get mental health-related support sometime in the future.