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Help Yourself To Help Others by Katherine Warner #AMHSMonday, 1 June 2015
I am SO excited to finally share with you the first article from A Mental Health Series! (#AMHS, yeah gave myself a hashtag) A series that will open the discussion and share stories, films and much more on TrudyJohanna. I am so happy that my good friend Kath got involved and so pleased that she will be the first contributor! So, enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments.
Help Yourself to Help Others
The year is 2015. Same sex marriage is now legal in the UK, 30% of MPs in Parliament are female and as of June 2012 the number of recorded offences of knife crime was down by 9% from the previous year. It is safe to say that societal concerns which have plagued the UK in the past decade appear to be ebbing away into a thing of the past. Yet despite these huge achievements, an ugly shadow still hangs over every single one of us, either directly or otherwise. Mental illness is a very serious concern which unfortunately affects an overwhelming amount of people. In fact, according to mentalhealth.org, 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from some form of mental illness over the course of the year.
I happen to be one of the fortunate individuals who has never been diagnosed with any form of mental illness, and therefore don’t feel that I can speak directly or even begin to understand how it must feel to be attacked by your own mind. However, the all-consuming nature of mental illness means that although I’m not a sufferer myself, I know plenty of people who either are or were. This includes friends I have known since I was six and a member of my direct family. I have seen first-hand how damaging depression, anxiety, eating-disorders or any other mental illness can be. I have spent countless hours listening to my friends’ darkest thoughts and offering what support I could. Thankfully the majority of the people I know who have been victims have successfully got the help they needed and are now on the road to recovery and are living happy and healthy lives, but not all of them were so lucky. A handful are still on regular medication and at the opposite end of the spectrum, unfortunately three years ago I lost my best friend to an accidental overdose due to his drug addiction. He was eighteen years old.
I guess the main reason for this article is not to tell the stories of my friends or family, or to give a general overview of what mental illness is. I am here to discuss self-preservation. There are millions of people all over the world who have taken upon themselves the role which I found myself in; caring for their loved ones and ultimately putting their own lives on hold in order to help others achieve the fuller life that they deserve. I am here to say, know your limits: you need to achieve a healthy balance of being there for the ones you care about whilst looking after yourself to the best of your ability. You cannot be the best person for others until you are the best you can be as an individual. In short, help yourself to help others.
Education can put an extreme amount on pressure on young adults, particularly between the periods of GCSE through to A Levels. In just a few short years, you are expected to have a clear impression of what you want to do with your life and begin to set the cogs in place to make these plans achievable. Realistically, very few people know or fully understand what they wish to be when they’re twenty, let alone how they want their life to proceed from that moment until they retire. Yet that is one of the many flaws of the UK education system. These life choices are scary and difficult enough for a healthy young adult, let alone someone who is suffering from mental illness such as anxiety or depression.
It was certainly in this time period that I began to notice the immense strain upon my very good friend. She is an incredibly bright girl with the world at her fingertips, but in the past she suffered from very severe depression. Our school environment wasn’t particularly understanding of the difficulties which she was facing and on top of that, her parents put a huge amount of pressure on her, with expectations of her becoming a doctor, which was both of their professions. All of these external forces frantically attempting to secure her future did nothing for her mental wellbeing. She began a slow decline into a very dark place and didn’t know exactly where she could seek help. She found comfort within her friends, myself included, and would often talk to us about her difficultiesand how she was feeling. Of course, all of us were happy to listen and do everything we could to improve her quality of life. Yet the sad truth was, there was only so much that we could do. None of us were trained councillors and although we were sympathetic to her situation, we had our own struggles to deal with. Most of us were applying for top universities, desperately trying to achieve the AAA grade requirements which would allow us to continue down the educational path we were aiming for. Speaking for myself, life became a farcical balancing act between my studies, my social life and helping my friend to the best of my ability.
At her (and my) worst, I was receiving nightly phone calls from my friend, sometimes as late as 4am when she was unable to sleep and crippled by the thoughts in her head. I would always try my best to answer and give her what little advice I was able to offer but the truth is, her illness had begun to take its toll on me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a full night’s sleep, I wasn’t eating properly because of the stress I was feeling and my grades began to suffer. I was under fire from my teachers who couldn’t understand why my coursework was being turned in two weeks late and nowhere near up to my usual standard. My A Levels were looming closer and in my current position there was no chance I was getting into any of the universities I applied for. I felt trapped because of course I wanted to be the best friend I could be but also I was making myself sick in the process. My friends and teachers were understandably concerned about me. I felt like I had taken the weight of the world on my shoulders, my mind instantly jumping to the worst case scenario if I wasn’t able to answer the phone or get out to my friend’s house when she was in need.
The day it became too much I broke down at the dinner table, much to the shock of my parents. My mum ended up sitting down with me and delivering me a few harsh truths about the situation, allowing me to realise that I was not a one woman miracle maker and although I could offer my friend some comfort I couldn’t solve all her problems on my own. She needed professional help and that was something I could not offer. The way the situation was going, there were going to be two girls suffering with depression rather than one. My mum was incredible and offered not only invaluable advice but also some methods which could help my friend such as the numbers of councillors and how to go about getting appointments at the hospital. I arrived at school the next day armed with this information and ready to get my life back on track. Unfortunately my friend didn’t fully understand the effect which her illness had had on me, and ended up getting quite angry. As upsetting as this was, I had to understand that she was not in a good place, and with time she would understand. I had done all I could do. All I could do now was be patient with her and concentrate on myself for a while. So that’s what I did.
It has been six years since that period of my life and I can happily report that things are an awful lot better. Whatever I said to my friend must have had some impact because shortly after she visited her GP who transferred her to the councillor she so desperately needed. She is now preparing to do a degree in Social Care and Social Work at university. I managed to scrape through my A Levels and have since received a great degree from a Russell Group university. My friend and I have settled our differences and are now better than we have been in years. I guess what I’m saying is if you find yourself in the position I was in, by all means be there for your friend to the best of your ability, but remember that you’re not a superhero. The responsibility is not yours alone, and you can only be the best person for your friend if you look out for yourself. So do that. Because you’re awesome.
Sketch by ambivalentlyyours on tumblr.