I’ve had to keep this relatively condensed as far as the whole event is concerned – there were so many things going on over the day, I’d end up writing three or four parts if I was to cover everything! So here’s my contribution to Shout Out For Youth Mental Health on Tuesday June 7th, an awesome event that I am thrilled to have been a part of. Early intervention in youth mental health is something I feel very strongly about, and research is an area that I’d like to explore in the future. I’m very lucky to be an ambassador for SOFYMH and to be a part of the NIHR Young Person’s Steering Group and having the chance to work with them.
The day before the event saw Dena completing the presentation as I got together my words to present with. I added a video that had been recorded of us both at the previous meeting, sent on to me by Claire Callens so that Dena could still have her say despite sitting an exam that day. We’d worked on the idea of highlighting my experiences as a teenager suffering from mental illness back in 2003 to Dena’s more recent experiences. This was to show that there has been some significant improvement and changes, but that there is still a lot to be done in terms of acknowledging poor mental health in young people and dealing with the attached stigma. The last time I did a presentation was back in university, where I’d drank four or five cans of Relentless, shuddered my way through the thing and had my final showdown with Manipulative Ex afterwards. I think I passed it, anyway.
In case you were under a rock on Tuesday, the weather was glorious. It was hot, sunny and generally not very British, which was wonderful for a change! I got to the mac birmingham at Cannon Hill Park and was briefed on the events of the day before putting a lanyard around my neck and getting to work. I helped with wrangling up visitors to answer some questions in order to collate for the lockdown session at the end of the day, asking about the importance of mental health research and the expectations of the event as a whole. It was also the first of many attempts by Dr Colin Palmer to get me to wear a SOFYMH cap… The conference began with an opening talk by Prof. Max Birchwood, Professor of Youth Mental Health at University of Warwick, speaking about how much support is needed for young people as well as the need for earlier intervention. He then introduced me up to the stage to give my presentation.
Just breathe, Claire.
I had my cards in my hand, the presentation behind me and Colin just by my side as I clicked through the slides and spoke. As Dena and I had discussed, I spoke about how there needs to be recognition of the spectrum of mental health as well as acknowledgement of differing severities of mental illness. There is such thing as severe depression as well as very mild schizophrenia, it’s all relative to the individual – and that mental health in itself is personal. We all have mental health, as we do physical health, and illness can affect both; yet, you don’t see people being shamed because they have the flu, so why do it to someone with a mental illness?
With that in mind, stigma needs to be addressed and dealt with so that young people can feel they are allowed to be open about their mental health, and not feel demonised if they should suffer a mental illness. We also made a point of saying that earlier intervention is vital in aiding recovery and helping a young person go into adulthood with less severe problems than if left unrecognised. To normalise self-harm and other destructive behaviours as merely a sign of being a teenager is to shrug off potentially very harmful signs of future illness. This point lead quite nicely to my own story of being diagnosed with BPD at age 24 after many symptoms being overlooked for over a decade. I spoke of the lack of support I had from all sides as a teenager, with depression in a 13-year-old at that point being unheard of. Along with this, my options for treatment were extremely limited too, something which may have contributed to my lack of clear recovery and future treatment plans.
Dena’s story was then shown, where she spoke of a contrast to my experiences where she had the support of her family along with medical support as well. Of course, stigma has been a problem for her as much as I’ve faced, which goes to show that we are still a way from tackling that hurdle completely. Colin told me I was doing great, and although inside I was a nervous wreck I was pretty sure I had made it through without swearing or going blank. I ended the presentation by simply saying that the best way we can face this issue as a whole is to talk about it, to not be afraid of talking about it and to not be ashamed. There was a huge round of applause and as I took my seat, I was thanked by Prof. Birchwood as he said once again that early intervention is key as noted by my speaking about my BPD diagnosis.
As we finished up that part of the morning, I had a wave of people coming up to me to say they enjoyed the presentation – along with a young woman who had recently been diagnosed with BPD herself and was desperate to know that there were others out there living with it. She thanked me for being so open and giving her a little bit of hope. That conversation alone made it all worth it. It’s why I do what I do.
The focus for the rest of the event as far as my role went was to help conduct the lockdown session at the end of the day, along with my fellow YPSG members Ella, Megan, Mia and Dan. After lunch we chatted and planned for the questions that had been given to us at the beginning of the day, so we could open up the floor for the other attendants to answer and discuss.Mia and Megan had been busy putting graphs together to show from the data collated that morning, while Ella planned what to say to the audience along with me. The stage was set up, and there was a moment where Colin and I debated over whose generation The Fresh Prince of Bel Air belonged to (I still say mine… and I still didn’t wear the hat, even if he did try putting it on my head!) and before we knew it, we were sat there ready to begin.
It was so organic, the conversations and debates that were discussed between the five of us on stage and the audience in front of us. We needed very little prompting even with the questions that we had in our hands, and the topic of how best to move forward in going beyond stigma and providing better support in helping young people look after their mental health. Awareness in schools was a particularly strong subject, as well as the surprising topic of how parents can deal best with the mental health of their child. I say surprising simply because of Ella talking of support before I added how my parents had been frankly quite demeaning when they found that I’d been self-harming when I was 13, and that had been detrimental to me. Kids, teenagers, young adults – they all need love and support, and they deserve it no matter what.
The day was overall, a huge success. I hope it’s the start of something big in youth mental health and spreading the message of importance of support and care for those who need it during the most difficult years of their lives. Once again, thank you to Claire Callens and Carly Greene for letting me be a part of the YPSG, thanks to Dr Charlotte Connor, Dr Colin Palmer and Dr Sunita Channa for inviting me to be a part of the day, and a HUGE thanks to Dena, Ella, Megan, Mia and Dan for just being awesome!
(Bonus: Just for Colin, I wore a hat.)