Mental health needs to become part of the vernacular of schools. It needs to be "normal"
I was nine years old. My hair was still wet from swimming class. The teachers were picking girls to sing in the school play: each would come to the front and sing accompanied by the music teacher on piano. The pupils they picked were what I categorised as "girly girls" (even at that age, aesthetics were already combative commodities). Realising the unfairness of this, I put my hand up.
I remember being confused as to why Fierce Me suddenly had quivering hands. I reached the front, opened my mouth and was startled by how hard it was to breathe. My voice had become a dulled, tentative squeak. With suppressed tears, my nine-year-old self used all her strength to finish the song and sat back down, foiled and bewildered. Constricted vocal cords, dizziness and weak limbs were yet to mean anything to me.
Only looking back now, twelve years and countless anxiety attacks later, am I able to categorise this as my first experience of anxiety.
At school, mental health was a vast, hazy archive, used only to explain upsetting events. Words were extracted – "depressed", "anxious" – before being banished, back into the haze. Mental health was meant to be something distant, something to explain others; it was never personal.
'I wasn't given the support I needed'
Even when people finally did talk about mental health, I followed the old pattern, separating myself from it. My childhood had been dotted with anxiety attacks. I never confronted them as I had never been given the support (or even had the conversation) in school that I needed. Instead, I determined what triggered my anxiety the unknown, anything competitive or comparative, anything where I feared the outcome – and I avoided it.
Throughout university, I was still unable to control my anxiety. But eventually, two weeks before my finals, I acknowledged what I had subconsciously known for a long time, and booked a doctor’s appointment. The face of an unnerved doctor, as I detailed years of symptoms, was – ironically – significantly relieving.
I was no longer an uncategorised mess. I understood what my body was doing; it had a name, and so it stopped being so much my fault as it had felt throughout my school years.
We need to ensure young people today do not have to wait this long. At school, I had feared my anxiety would be put down to sheer nervousness. Alhough I knew it was not normal to have to repeatedly remind myself how to breathe, that being out of control of my own body was not just nerves, I still had doubts that I would be taken seriously.
There is much good being done through discussion spaces and charities in schools now, but mental health challenges for young people remain separate from the everyday in schools. This othering means young people never identify themselves in the problems, that they never feel comfortable asking for support.
If we are to truly tackle mental health issues, we need to do more. Mental health needs to become part of the vernacular of schools. It needs to be "normal".
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