I often feel that being young is a bit of a curse when it comes to having mental health problems. In the early stages of mental illness in a young person it’s often seen as a phase. A young person will start obsessively calorie counting, cutting out food groups and losing weight and it will often be seen as a phase until it reaches a dangerous point. Self harming is worryingly seen as a ‘teenage thing’ that people will grow out of. Low mood and depression are seen as hormones or being a grumpy teenager.
Looking back to when I was in school, my mental health problems weren’t seen as mental health problems. The most it was recognised was an ’emotional problems’ mark next to my name in the register. My overdoses would get me in trouble, throwing away my lunch had my parents called in. School took me to my doctors once and my gp just brushed over it as a teenage phase, never mind the fact I had been having eating problems since primary school.
In general hospitals I’ve had a lot of “Oh you’re so young and beautiful, why do you do this to yourself?”and “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” Comments that just made feel guilty about the way I felt and the thoughts that went on in my head. I was never taken seriously, I guess the way I was wasn’t seen as illness. It was just seen as behaviour and a teenage blip.
It’s definitely a curse to be a young person in adult mental health services. Let’s talk assessments first. My mental health has been judged on the way I am dressed and presented in every single assessment I have had. As a young person I have a wardrobe from shops such as Topshop, ASOS, Miss Selfridge and so on. The clothes in my wardrobe do not disappear and get replaced by ‘mentally ill’ outfits just because I am unwell. So yes, I do turn up to assessments in relatively fashionable clothes but that does not say anything about the illnesses in my brain. Maybe if I borrowed my mum’s clothes for these assessments they would take me more seriously. The outcome of assessments has been ridiculous in the past and I know other young people who have had similar outcomes. I have known people who have been very unwell and have waited 6 weeks for an assessment just to be told to go back to their GP if things get bad. I had an assessment when I moved to Wales, bear in mind I’ve been unwell since childhood and in and out of hospitals. Their outcome was that I was a young woman who felt low in mood because of a recent life change as I had just moved to the area. It was like NO this is not because I’m young, this is not because I’ve moved house. I have severe and enduring mental health problems. They now realise this but it took a lot of persistence in order to be listened to and given support.
In inpatient treatment I found it particularly hard to be a young person on a ward that was very focused on older people. The activities on the wards I’ve been in have been gardening, knitting, bingo, newspaper group. They’re just not very young person focused and the staff don’t always know how to deal with young patients. I also feel quite awkward being young on a ward full of people older than my parents. I shared a room with a 60 year old when I was 18.
The general public don’t always understand young people with mental health problems. They are hidden illnesses, just because you think that someone is young and fashionable it doesn’t mean that they’re not severely unwell. With anorexia, I’ve been very unwell to the point it’s affected my memory, my eyesight, I’ve been weak and cold and unable to walk very far. It’s been physical agony as well as mental agony but a lot of the time when I’ve tried to explain to people how I’m feeling the other person has laughed and said “wait until you’re my age!”
I think it can be very hard to be listened to, heard and taken seriously as a young person with mental health problems. I think that stigma and stereotyping is slowly being reduced in adults and older adults with mental health problems but there tends to be an awful lot with younger people not only in society but also in mental health services.