Daily #14: Common denominator

At some point, the topic here was going to turn towards mental health. I intend to discuss my own prior issues with mental health at some point, but today I wanted to talk about others in my life who have struggled with these obstacles.

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to offend anyone with my views and experiences – this is just how I saw these events at the time, many of which occurred in my early-to-mid teens.

I was in secondary school when ‘mental health issues’ was the hot topic of the day. Personal blogging sites such as Tumblr were huge, and in that example especially, being ‘quirky’, ‘unique’ and ‘different’ were what made you popular in certain circles. This, tied with the romanticisation of being ‘damaged’ meant that mental health self-diagnosis was thrown around a lot.

In a way, this was a good thing – it formed communities of young people struggling with issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and kickstarted the process of destigmatising mental illness as a whole. However, having experienced those who were affected by this, I believe it also had a negative on certain groups of people – for insecure teens who desperately wanted a piece of identity to cling to, being able to give themselves these labels gave them this.

But after deciding they had, for example, anxiety, some people would start to forcibly exhibit symptoms where previously they did not have them. “Fake it ’til you make it” still applied, and adopting symptoms sometimes meant that these teens actually developed the disorders they’d baselessly diagnosed themselves with.

Until I reached sixth form, I was a fairly quiet person, but did not consider myself as mentally unwell. I was always quite a rational person, and didn’t let my emotions get in the way of making the right decision (most of the time. There were definitely points when this wasn’t true, but I was 14 years old). I associated with the ‘outsider’ group – where those that suffered from mental health issues (which made them ‘weird’) also resided.

Being the level-headed one among a mish-mash of depression and anxiety-afflicted peers, I became the de facto advice giver. Friends would talk to me about their issues, and I’d try my best to provide practical advice. For a while, I was happy with my role. The focus was not on me, and knowing and being trusted with my friends’ secrets made me feel validated.

However, as we all got older, this role became less and less desirable. As we progressed into our later teens, previously harmless problems – such as crushes, falling outs and awkward family situations – became more and more serious. A total of three of my close friends experienced suicidal thoughts. One dropped out of school; the other two attempted more than once. A fourth fought increasing social anxiety and another struggled with an eating disorder. And these were just the problems I knew about.

We all knew how our school, parents and other authorities would react if we reported these issues. So we tried to sort them out amongst themselves. As one of the very few people who, at this point, was not experiencing any issues, they didn’t feel as bad confiding in me about them. But everyone has a limit, and by sixth form, I seemed to have reached mine. By that point, I’d had to talk a friend down from suicide.

I then began to develop my own anxiety issues, which I will at some point address in another post. I’m not trying to say ‘woe is me’ with the above – I was comparatively lucky. I was not dealing with those issues myself, and none of my friends ever went through with their ideations.

The point I am trying to make is that I shouldn’t have taken all of that on my own shoulders. I felt a level of guilt when thinking about trying to break off the advice – in some cases, doing so could have had dire consequences for the other person, but I only realised this when I was already stuck there. It’s important to put myself first in these scenarios, and gauge whether I can provide this advice long term if I need to. While I’m glad I was able to provide a listening ear, if this was an advice blog, I’d say: try to make sure your relationship with a confidant isn’t one-sided. Ask them how they’re feeling too, and work together to help each other.

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