Last Summer, I was sitting at my desk, procrastinating and drinking copious amounts of coffee. This, you will not be surprised to hear, was hardly a new experience for a student two years into his degree. Then, from nowhere, it hit me. An overwhelming feeling of sheer terror. I was suddenly breathless, numb and in shock. I knew what was happening but that scarcely made it any better – I was having a panic attack. I needed to calm down. I focussed on my breathing and steadied myself. Then, I tried not to think about it.
The next few days I was plagued with worry. Had it just been the caffeine? Could anything else bring on more of these attacks? Was I now permanently vulnerable to them? Two days later, it happened again. Then a number of other times to greater and lesser degrees over the following weeks. I didn’t know why they kept coming. For the first time in my adult life, I was terrified.
I quit my Summer internship, a month in out of three. I told my employers that I had the flu, the commute was too much and I was getting too run down. I told my family the same and that I wasn’t getting much out of the placement.
By this point, I knew that I was suffering from anxiety but couldn’t face the condition. The label. A mental illness. I felt weak, but also wholly unworthy of sympathy. I told nobody what I was going through. I’d managed to calm my own panic attacks down, primarily through breathing exercises, but I wondered what was next in store for me.
I went from being a logical, laid-back individual to one racked with worry. Until this point, mental illness was something other people experienced. Not any more. Would I develop schizophrenia? Paranoia? Would I become claustrophobic? House-bound? Institutionalized? Terrified by these thoughts, day and night, around my friends and family I maintained the same cheery (if somewhat cynical) demeanour. Inside I was a mess.
It felt like I was going mad. For someone who had always seen himself as a rational, emotionally stable individual, being overwhelmed by fear and worry was not a pleasant experience. It was not a feeling I would have wished upon my worst enemy.
A week or two on, I realized that I was struggling and that I needed to talk to someone. I knew that my brother had suffered from something in the past but didn’t know what. I had blocked it out. At the time, my head was in my books and I had left my parents to deal with it. But I needed him and thankfully, he was happy to help. He talked me through all my symptoms; the panic attacks, the worry of developing a more serious mental illness, the down days and the occasional existential doubt. He’d got through it and so could I. That meant a lot.
My Dad, who my brother informed me, had also suffered from anxiety the previous year, was also an enormous help. He talked me through the various options that he had himself been presented with. These included cognitive behavioural therapy and medication.
A couple of close friends also offered me support and I was very appreciative for it. I realized that the more I opened up, the more bearable my anxiety seemed. At the same time, I still kept quiet around the vast majority. I still felt it taboo. Hard to casually drop into conversation.
I signed up to receive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and was lucky to receive it pretty quickly. Although, by the time I returned to university, I was over the worst of my symptoms, it was certainly a big help. At the same time I garnered an appreciation of the value of such (vitally free) mental health services, having seen them in action up close and personal. I thought to myself, for those who hadn’t received the support I was lucky enough to enjoy at home, they really would be crucial.
A few weeks into my final year at university I had my anxiety under control and was discharged from CBT. Since that Summer, I have had the chance to reflect on my experiences.
Now, I am less worried that I am going mad and more worried that mental health services are being sidelined by the coalition. In therapy, I had said that a real source of comfort to me was knowing a National Health Service would look after me and ease the burden on my family, if my mental health ever did deteriorate. I can still recall the practitioner looking uncomfortable.
The cuts – if we must have them – really shouldn’t be levied on the vulnerable and that is exactly what’s happening. These services need to be protected.
Not only did I reaffirm my belief in the value of the NHS and the importance of safeguarding of it, but I also learnt the importance of talking about mental health issues. At the time of writing, only a few people know what I have been through. Now I seem to be over the worst of my anxiety, I don’t feel it’s right for me to keep it a secret. But I have done up and until this point and usually (rather pathetically) there’s nothing I like more than talking about myself.
There is a stigma that needs to be broken down. Talking about mental health issues is the most important thing we can do to start helping those suffering from them. The work of charities like MIND is of vital importance in this regard. But so is the work of all of us – not to shrug of these problems, not to mock or marginalize them – but to react with the same warmth and understanding I was lucky enough to receive.
We must embrace discussion of mental health issues and reverse cuts that have been made to the relevant services. In the UK, 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. If you don’t suffer yourself, the chances are you know someone that does. It’s time we started talking about these issues. If we wait too long – for many, devastatingly – it will be far too late.