Last week saw the release of data from the latest National Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which showed that the group at the highest risk of mental ill health is young women. The survey results make for grim reading if you are a woman in the age bracket of 19-24 years of age. Levels of reported anxiety, depression, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder were higher in this group, and whilst the levels amongst men had stabilised since the last survey in 2007, they have increased for woman.
I can’t count myself in that age bracket anymore but when I passed through it I was well and truly in the thick of some pretty horrible anxiety and depression. My experiences with depression began as a thirteen-year-old girl. My memories are hazy now but I remember feeling the lowness and despair engulf me and I remember not knowing how to get rid of them. I remember wishing my teens would hurry up and finish soon, as I thought everything would be fine as soon as I turned eighteen. I remember there being no public awareness about mental ill health, not like there is now, and although I believe things are much better now, the stigma lingers.
I was fortunate to have parents who understood I needed help and who enabled me to get it. I can’t even recall telling my mum about how I was feeling. I must have done; there must have been some series of events leading up to the appointment with my Doctor when I was fifteen, where I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression. Over the years, my depression was controlled by medication when it became too difficult to lift. I learned to identify the signs that it might come again. Routine was and still is my friend. At university, I became very depressed during my second year. I ended up trying out counselling but ultimately did not gel with my counsellor and I stopped it and returned to my tablets. Outwardly, nobody would know I was depressed at university. I continued to have a fun and active social life but when the low feelings came, they hit me hard and although I never recognised it at the time, the lack of any kind of structure was significant. I slept a lot during the day, I went out most of the night. Even now, if I’m tired and anybody suggests an afternoon nap, I will never do it. I cannot sleep during the day for fear it will unsettle me too much.
Since graduating 14 years ago, I’ve had a few pretty big incidents of depression but it feels like they are becoming kinder as I get older. They anchor themselves to big events, rather than hitting me at random, as they did when I was younger. When I had my first child, although I should have been prepared for Post-Natal Depression, I hadn’t even given it a thought until it hit me in the days after the birth. My health team put it down to ‘Baby Blues’ and left me to it. It was only when I called out the emergency Doctor one Sunday evening and told him in a very matter-of-fact way that I was experiencing very familiar and horrible symptoms of depression, that he believed me and arranged immediate treatment. When I became pregnant again, my health team were pretty much all over me and my mental health from the get-go, and in the event I didn’t experience PND again.
So I have my own experience of depression and I fully expect it will keep returning throughout my life. I’m okay with that. I’ve learnt to sniff out when it’s coming. I’ve learnt some things I can do to help to try to keep it at bay, and I’ve learnt what to do when it does come. I’m fortunate that I have supportive family and friends around me who try to understand and I’m fortunate I have a pretty strong routine and structure now. What I do think about though is the legacy of my mental health for my children. Mental ill health runs in my family so it is little surprise it touched me too. And I am braced for the possibility it may happen to one or both of my children. And though it was not a pleasant experience for me growing up, I have to admit I feel for them and for all young people who experience this, because they have to experience it in the world we live in today. It feels very much like children and young people have to grow up in a goldfish bowl now. There is very little privacy for them in terms of their lives being played out online and on social media. Bullying, which was once the preserve of the school playground, now enters children’s homes via their internet connections. I can’t imagine how horrible that must be. And the pressures for young women to fit an ideal look and a mould of ‘beautiful’ are ever prevalent. How can we expect our young women to keep it together when we throw all of this at them?
I hope that the awareness of mental ill health and the importance of positive mental health keeps on growing. I hope they stay in the collective consciousness and I hope that one day the stigma disappears. I hope that the world my children grow up in is much more accepting of difference, and a much more supportive place. All of these things I hope, but with a heavy heart I don’t allow myself to believe they will come true unless we start to take much more care with the emotional well-being of our young people.