I was diagnosed with depression when I was 17. Now 23, I recently filled in a survey from Time to Change, which asked about my experiences with mental health issues at school, and I have been surprised by the extent to which other respondents to the survey have had almost identical experiences to me.
The stats released by Time to Change should not be taken flippantly. Many of them don't surprise me, but I take particular issue with the fact that half of sufferers are making a conscious choice to hide the fact that they have a mental health issue from their school, college, or university.
This is what I did. It didn't help me at the time and it doesn't much help me now. There is no advantage to young sufferers feeling they are obliged to stay silent about their issues - trust me, I've done it - and I'll hopefully point out why in this blog post.
Taking a step back, my silence at school was symptomatic of mental health issues at the time; depression was the new kid on the block and nobody wanted to talk to him, or about him. He got a bit antsy and took it out on me.
I was scared and alone - and I needed to talk about it (whether I wanted to or not). Unfortunately, I couldn't. Because depression was a 'new' disease, the support mechanisms were not in place for me to tell my teachers and peers. I had depression for the last two years of my secondary education and it was mentioned once, and then only briefly, by a teacher who said that my reasons for my prolonged absences were probably due to "mental problems, not physical ones".
Understandably, I didn't particularly want to share information that the rest of the world wasn't ready to hear. So I stayed quiet, for their benefit as much as mine. This silence stayed with me through school, all the way through university, to now - and a situation in which I haven't told my employers about my depression.
But, back to my education. My fear of isolation caused my prolonged absences from school. There were two levels to it. The first was that I was alone in having depression, and had no way to talk about it. The second was the underlying feeling that if anyone were to find out, they'd reinforce that isolation by exiling me.
I developed an unhealthy relationship with school. I found the work unchallenging and had no friends (I deferred an entire school year while my peers moved onto university), so my motivation was at an all-time low. I opted to just stay at home - at least my isolation was of my own choosing. I went into school whenever I felt able to deal with the loneliness, or was obliged to catch up on work, and would spend all my free-time on my own, in silence. There are no prizes to work out that this didn't help my depression or my confidence in speaking about it, and that year was the most troubling I've ever faced.
Fortunately, I breezed my way into university (isolation meant I had plenty of time to ace my exams). However, my experiences in the last year had led to me fearing moving away from home, so I went to my local university to alleviate that fear.
Living at home meant I had trouble making friends and, for this reason, the depression I suffered during my final year at school didn't disappear. I almost dropped out of university after just one term, and to say my education hung in the balance is an understatement. I still cite my experiences at school, almost two years prior, as the starting point for my confrontational relationship with depression.
My autobiography complete, this is the time to raise my concern: many others are starting their journey with mental health disorders in school, and most of them are currently forging a pathway that will reflect my own. I believe this is a direct cause of the culture of silence at secondary-school level, where teenagers are unable to be frank about their problems for fear of admonishment from peers who, through lack of education, are unable to grasp the significance of living with mental health issues.
The continued suppression of mental health issues will only muddy the waters and make change harder. What I mean to say is this: for every sufferer who stays silent about their problem (and I should stress that this isn't the fault of the sufferer), anyone who could potentially listen to that sufferer will stay in the dark about mental health, and this is what perpetuates stigma.
The way forward is to give sufferers the motivation and support to share their stories, and non-sufferers the urge to listen to those stories. Our schools must do whatever it takes to let every non-sufferer know that every sufferer is still a human, and should be respected as such.