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Battling Wasps - Stress and Mental Health

It has been twenty years since the height of my conflict with depression, since the dark days when I saw only one way out of my suffering. I am so thankful that I am still here to talk about that experience. Looking back, I can not recognise the young man who stood in my shoes and wanted to end his life.

At the age of 14, I was in a good place. I was blessed with a normal, average sort of life. Middle class upbringing in a loving family environment, good health (apart from seriously short-sighted vision) and very few troubles to worry about. Unremarkable but safe, that’s probably the best way to describe my world at that time.

My focus was school and I was doing really well. Popular with the teachers and enough friends to get by, I was excelling academically but I had no real ambitions or plans for my future. Life was a “one day at a time” game so thinking about growing up was not high on my priorities. Then I had a conversation with a careers advisor who suggested that I may be on a course for being a future Oxbridge student.

That was when stress first flew into my life.

At the age of 16, I finished Comprehensive School with a raft of A* and A GCSE grades as well as a heavy burden of expectations. I was Head Boy in my final year, member of the Debating Team and one of the top performers in English. My parents had heard feedback from my teachers, my teachers had written glowing reports, my friends were more jealous than supportive (that’s teenagers for you, I guess). Expectations were floating around my head like annoying little wasps.

There is a distinct difference between stress and depression, which I did not understand at the time. I never saw depression sneaking up on me. It was always cloaked and hidden in shadow, without a name or a face.

Then I started college.

The transition from school to college hit me really hard. On an academic side, there was greater emphasis placed on your own motivation and momentum to learn. The subjects were not much harder but the structure and style of learning subtly changed. That Oxbridge expectation was still buzzing around but nobody could see how difficult I was finding these new ways.

The transition also changed dynamics in my life away from the books. I was socialising more, learning to drive, seeking work, building relationships with new people, hoping for romance…many of these things were new and difficult for me. Another wasp had joined the collective; peer pressure. I was being exposed to drinking, smoking, environments that I had never experience before and it was a little frightening.

At 17, for the first time in my life, I was failing.

My studies were not going well and I had taken on too much responsibility in my first year in college. Attempts at socialising with groups (in particular those romantic endeavours that were suddenly highlighting some of my social inadequacies) were hopelessly bad. I had lost contact with old school friends and struggled forming new friendships so loneliness had joined the party. And I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life!

Now each of those little wasps were beginning to swarm around my head, getting faster and louder every day. They each exerted a small amount of pressure on my mind but combined, that pressure was huge. I would lose hours of sleep trying to catch the little buggers and make them stop but each failed attempt was increasing my anxiety. On bad days, one would sting me so hard all I could do was cry.

Before the age of 18, I had tried to take my life.

Stress is easy to define, just look in a dictionary or search online. Stress comes from the emotional strain and tension we feel when we are subjected to situations and circumstances for which we are not prepared. Someone with a good foundation – i.e. a strong and resilient mental health capacity – can ensure and sometimes thrive in such situations.

Looking back twenty years, I realise now that I did not have good mental health at that time. For me, every one of those little wasps was a threat, a danger that I was not strong enough to deal with on my own. It is like building a house one floor at a time, adding more weight on top of the foundations; bad enough but if your foundations are made of sand, sooner or later it will all collapse on top of you.

The reality of it is that stress is everywhere. This Mental Health Week, there is a great deal of focus on managing stress as part of our ongoing fight against poor mental health. Whatever condition you are suffering (one in four of us will have a mental health problem this year, after all) it is important to accept that life will always be full of things that can cause us stress.

For teenage me, stress came from a number of sources and in many ways, it could have been a lot worse. My problems stemmed from poor foundations in my own mental health and a lack of understanding about what I could do to manage myself through that stressful time. That young man was not equipped to deal with stress and that drove me to considering extreme actions to escape that swarm of wasps inside my head.

Thankfully, I am better informed and aware of what stress is and most importantly, what I need to do to support myself through periods of high stress. After college, I could not continue down the academic path that others had paved in front of me so I joined the working world and forged a path of my own now. I am proud that not only have I used my experience to champion the importance of mental health (especially with a teenage audience, as though I could talk to that 16 year old version of me again) but I am now happy, healthy and ready for the challenges of this great journey called life.

The wasps don’t bother me anymore (well, not so much)…

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