Before meeting Jess, I was nervous about the questions I’d prepared. What if I came across as brash? What if the difficulties were too distressing to discuss?
Having had some mental health problems myself, I know these issues can affect people in unpredictable ways. Then Jess arrived and cracked a big smile, looking completely at ease. No obvious signs of mental health problems.
However, I soon learned that 21-year-old Jess has struggled with a laundry list of illnesses, including depression, general anxiety, social anxiety,
obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe dissociation. These can cause countless difficulties in everyday situations.
“Colleagues might think I’m being antisocial by refusing to attend a meal after work,” Jess told me. “But I have difficulties in social situations and with small talk; unfamiliar places and changes of routine make me anxious.”
Jess is far from alone in these struggles. The Office of National Statistics found that 13% of boys and 10% of girls aged 11-16 have a mental health problem, rising to 23% among 18-20 year olds.
Jess’s mental health began to deteriorate at 17, triggered by rising academic pressures, bullying and problems at home. Eventually, Jess confided in a teacher who advised either speaking to parents or attending counselling.
“I didn’t feel that telling my family would really help, so I chose counselling.” The school referred Jess to a local branch of CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) which treats patients up to 18 years old.
“I was seen quite quickly, as it was an urgent referral, and the counsellor I was assigned to was really helpful.” However things changed when Jess turned 18, which meant now depending on less reliable adult services.
“It seems unfair that people are discharged based on their age, instead of how well they’re responding to treatment,” sighed Jess, the warm smile fading for the first time during our conversation.
Several years of inconsistent care marked Jess’s early adult life, due to limited mental health services in the local area. Others have no doubt had similar experiences: less than 1% of local authorities’ health budgets in England were spent on mental health in 2015/16 – down from 1.4% in 2013/14, according to mental health charity Mind.
Jess’s story pained me. I know how difficult mental health issues can become when untreated. Even when support is available, the quality of care can vary immensely.
“I’ve been told by professionals to think about how much my problems disrupt my family,” Jess continued. “I understand this, but professionals seem to side with patients’ families, trying to guilt us into changing behaviours we really can’t help…The truth is that people experiencing mental illness can never take a break. Others can spend time away from you, but you can never get away from yourself.”
Jess found talking regularly with a professional really beneficial. “I do better when I can access counselling or therapy as it provides a safe space to talk, and I can be referred to specialists if needed.”
What I found most striking about the interview was Jess’s ability to speak openly about these experiences. “I know other young people aren’t as self-aware as I am… they might need others to speak up for them to realise they need help,” Jess explained.
“Mental health is a taboo subject, even now. That needs to change before we can make progress and get the support we need. I have complex mental health problems. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely free of them or 100% ‘recovered’ – I still struggle every day. Having said that, being able to access therapy has made me able to process my difficulties and feelings.
“Before I got help, I worried that I was a fraud, nothing ‘bad enough’ had happened to justify me feeling this way. However, being able to talk to someone about my problems helps me feel more able to cope, and less alone.”
This article originally appeared in issue 124 a mental health special funded by John Lyon’s Charity.