Confession time: the first time i asked for help

The World in Mentalists this week featured a blog about first experiences (or first contact!) seeking help for a mental health problem.

Reading that blog which you can find here i suddenly found myself transported back almost ten years ago now to my own first time. The first time i admitted that i needed help and couldn’t do it on my own any more.

This first experience is, for many, a huge deal. It is the first time they have ever admitted it and let their carefully crafted mask fall and from personal experience it feels like a confessional.

Forgive me doctor but something is really not right in my head.

The first time i ever admitted out loud that something was not all right was  definitely a shatter point in my existence. My memories of it are vivid even now and i look back and have so many things i wish i could say to that scared girl.

I was fourteen when i first went to my GP and asked for help. I had been ill for a fairly long time by this point, having already fallen quite deep down the rabbit hole of Depression, Anorexia, Anxiety and OCD.

These were not conditions that had come about suddenly, they had grown up with me, slowly and silently. I had always been an anxious child and i can remember very ritualised behaviour and obsessive compulsive symptoms dating back to the age of 6 but it had always seemed very normal and very manageable to me.

In fact i remember thinking that everyone did the strange rituals i did and thought the way i did, we never talk about it because everyone does it i reasoned to myself.

When i was thirteen it began to manifest more strongly and i started retreating into myself. I had always been quiet and i had just started the “terrible teens” so it was not really noticed, not even by me, that i had started withdrawing from the world.

I had a lot of friends online and they were the ones that eventually managed to convince me to tell people “IRL” (in real life) and that what i was feeling was not normal.

Up to this point i had told almost no one that actually knew me, it was something i kept incredibly close to my chest and that not even family or close friends knew about.

I finally managed to work up the courage to tell my parents. Almost. I left them a note that said i needed to go to the doctor because something wasn’t right. This may seem cowardly but at this point i was literally unable to get the words out of my mouth.

They were shocked and scared, it was completely out of the blue, so good i had got at hiding that anything was wrong.

I wrote a four page letter to my doctor on my computer and printed it out because i was terrified of saying anything and i knew i would sabotage it and end up saying that nothing was really wrong, i had made a mistake.

I honestly did not know what to expect or what would happen after i handed over those pieces of paper. Mental health was not talked about ten years ago. We now have wonderful campaigns like Time to Change and politicians talking about their experiences of mental illness but when i was 14 this just did not happen.

There certainly wasn’t anything about mental health or illness at school. People made jokes about “nutters” and “men in white coats” sure but there was deafening silence from the curriculum.

I was scared that i was going to be sent straight to a psychiatric hospital right there and then on the spot. I was scared i would be medicated up to my eye balls.

Luckily this was not the case!

The doctor i saw was young and very newly qualified. She admitted from the very beginning that she knew very little about mental illness or the conditions i was suffering from and had never had a patient like me but that she would do everything in her power to find out more and help.

She was incredibly kind and compassionate and refused to give me medication, saying instead that i would have a referral to the local CAMHS team for an assessment. I remember how wonderful she was, so non judgemental and what’s more she believed me and what i was going through.

Through the weeks she helped me understand that medically i was not well and i needed help, she helped me talk to my parents and together we learnt more about my illness.

Later on she left her position at my surgery and went elsewhere, however because of the way she had responded to me i felt optimistic about my treatment from this point onwards.

I hear about some people’s first experiences and think back to some of my own later run ins with professionals i feel terrible thinking about it. It is so important that your first time “coming out” as it were about a mental health problem is not a negative one. I know so many people that tried once and it took them years afterwards to try again because their first experience had been so traumatic.

There is still a real gap that needs to be dealt with in terms of good and actual patient experience is and the education of GPs when it comes to mental health, especially in young people.

But i hope that through continuing work by organisations like YoungMinds we can get there. Everyone deserves to be taken seriously and treated with respect.

And if you want to help support mental health education in schools check out my friend Charlotte’s amazing AcSEED project.

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Mental health, GPs and young people

This morning i called up my doctor’s surgery to get a much needed appointment with a GP. For most this is a task that needs little if any thought. For me however it can be a potential minefield.

What’s more when i called up i was informed that my appointment would be with a new doctor, not one that i had met before or had any experience of. Accepting the appointment, was for me, a pretty big gamble.

I’ll explain. I have had mental health problems to some level or another for most of my life and i have been using mental health services for coming up to nine years now. I have almost endless experience of all sorts of medical professionals from psychiatrists to nurses and everything in between.

Obviously as a UK resident my first port of call when it comes to health (both physical and mental) is my GP. GPs often feel like the gatekeepers to other services and organisations and i have always felt that it is vital to have a good working relationship with them.

However when it comes to mental health nothing is ever so simple. I would like to say that i have had predominantly good experiences but this is not the case.

I think the problem comes, to some extent from a combination of two factors: the fact that this is mental health and that i am a young person. Apparently these two things mean it is often harder for me not only to access the treatment i need but also to have problems recognised at all.

I wish i could say that i was alone in this experience but unfortunately that is far from the truth. I have spoken to countless other service users young and old about their experiences of GPs and they very much mirror my own. I wish i could tell you that young people weren’t told that their conditions were “a phase”/hormones/attention seeking/manipulative. Eating disorders are seen as a fad or a diet gone to far, depression dismissed. And if you were told this after opening up about something deeply personal that you may have not ever shared before, do you think you would go back or try and get a second opinion? I know i would think twice. I know it is a hard fact to stomach that some children and young people suffer from severe mental health problems but we can’t ignore or it deny these people help because it makes us uncomfortable.

All the evidence shows that a huge proportion of adults that have a mental health condition report symptoms starting in adolescence and the power of early intervention, as shown especially in EIiP (Early Intervention in Psychosis) services, cannot be denied.

And yet we still struggle to get our voices heard and to be taken seriously.

GPs need training not only in how to spot the warning signs of mental distress in children and young people but also need to be educated on atypical presentations (we don’t all neatly fit into diagnostic boxes) and a more holistic and open approach to young people.

Luckily today was a positive experience. In spite of all my anxiety in the run up to the appointment i was seen by a doctor that listened to me, took my opinions and preferences into account and made me feel relaxed.
It is just unfortunate that i can’t say that more often.