Anxiety, depression and drugs — teenagers’ stories
As a new report reveals that UK teens are among the most troubled in the developed world, young people and parents share their experiences of mental illness
‘My head didn’t feel right — I was scared to admit it’
I was never one to fuss. My parents divorced when I was nine. It never really bothered me. My depression had a slow onset. I woke up one morning, aged 14, and didn’t feel too right. The next morning I didn’t feel too right either, and it just got worse.
I lost my enthusiasm, my work spirit, my social life. The fogginess was the worst symptom. Everything declined. My grades dropped from straight A*s to Ds.
I’d look at an Instagram feed and see people happy with friends, and I felt jealousy, even if I knew they weren’t really happy. All negative things are amplified online.
For three months I barely left my bedroom. When I did go to school I hid at the back of the class. I felt disconnected from my friends, my hobbies. You draw in all your tentacles from the world into the small space that is your bedroom, where the minimum — eating, sleeping — is required. I didn’t want to admit to myself that my head didn’t feel right.
Teachers occasionally pulled me aside to ask if I was OK, but there was no follow-up. I didn’t speak out because it made me feel awkward.
I’d suffered concussion from playing sport and I slightly exaggerated the effects, and went for MRI scans to see if there was something else wrong. Secretly I’d have loved it to have been a brain tumour. Finally, nine months ago, I realised that there was nothing else to test for. It’s a scary scenario to find yourself in.
With the help of the school nurse, I started to see a child psychologist. It was easier for me to talk to someone who wasn’t my parent. I needed to sort it out for myself. The more I talked, the less afraid I felt.
Depression can be cured. You just have to see the right people and fight your way through it
In terms of conversation, depression is such a no-go zone. And yet the majority of people my age aren’t happy. We’re supposed to be the generation that has it all. Really? We spend our days looking at shitty YouTube videos. I think we just have too much and there’s nothing we can work or fight towards.
Although I’m seeing an improvement since seeing a psychologist every week for the past six months — I’m on medication too, but I don’t feel it’s a huge part of it — the depression still affects me. It has ruined my chances of getting any reasonable GCSE grades. But in the scheme of things, that isn’t going to change who I am.
Depression can be cured. You just have to see the right people and fight your way through it, rather than hide away behind your screens to distract yourself from reality.
Bea, Rory’s mother
I think I knew there was a problem before he did. I’ve always known. He wasn’t very happy, even when he was little. My ex-husband and I used to joke that he had chronic dissatisfaction. We’d say: “We’re going to the beach!” And he’d go: “So unfair, why do we have to go to the beach?!” He does have a sunny side, but it has always been very hard to make him happy.
I feel guilt, of course. There is a history of depression in the family. Also, our generation has put our children on pedestals and it turns out that’s not necessarily a good thing. They’ve grown up feeling so entitled, I wonder if they’ll ever be able to feel happy. We’ve made them feel a bit too special.
We put them under unnecessary pressure, but I also think that they put themselves under it. They’re attached to their screens and grow up analysing each other’s lives. And my son minds what people think.
I knew he wasn’t feeling very happy, but I didn’t broach the subject because I didn’t want to pre-empt it. I felt terrified and powerless.
Then, last spring, he had this big bang on the head. He said he couldn’t do any work, couldn’t concentrate. We went to see the school doctor, and my doctor. Both talked about depression. But we had to go through a bit of a charade of having MRI scans and CT scans, so we could rule out a brain injury causing these things he described. It opened the dialogue. One day he sent me a text saying: “I think I’ve got depression.”
He had copied a load of stuff from the internet: “This is me — constant anxiety, constant feeling of doom.” I said: “Darling, it’s really important that you’ve said this; we’re going to try to get it sorted out.” But later on he didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Now, though, we do have a diagnosis and medication. No one wants to put their child on antidepressants, but sometimes we need that helping hand. He has definitely made progress, although he has gone into a funk now about his GCSEs and hasn’t done any work at all. I know that he’ll be disappointed, but I’m certainly not interested in exam qualifications. I just want my children to be happy.
‘My daughter’s weight was so low that her life was in danger’
Susannah, mother of Bella, 15 This time last year my daughter was about to turn 15. She was at school with plenty of friends and top of her class in all her subjects. Today she is in the grip of severe anorexia, she has spent time in a residential clinic and if her weight goes any lower she will require a nasal feeding tube.
Even as a child my daughter put a lot of pressure on herself to achieve, be it in tests, homework, or her hobbies, dance and art. Then, as she became a teenager, this habit of perfectionism began to manifest itself in the way she thought about her appearance. Suddenly, how you did at school, what you looked like, what your friends thought of you became the most important things in her and her friends’ lives.
She became convinced that she was fat and unattractive. If anyone took a picture of her or if she saw a picture of herself she would get upset and angry, which is hard in a world where camera phones are so ubiquitous and social media is a fundamental part of life.
Gradually, that anxiety began to appear during mealtimes. She would insist on eating only the healthiest, “cleanest” things and the smallest portions. She needed to control everything she put in her mouth. I think she felt it was the only thing she could control. At first we didn’t want to make a big thing of it, hoping it was a phase. Looking back, I realise our daughter, who was always so easy, also found it hard to express her emotions.
Finally, we could no longer ignore it, and it was a great relief when she came to us, burst into tears and said: “I need to talk to you, I am finding it really difficult to eat.” Naively, I thought: “Hurray, now we can really solve this problem.”
I marched her down to the doctor, who weighed her and quickly referred her to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, which took her in at the local hospital as an outpatient. Now she was being weighed every week, and that just made things worse because suddenly everything was about numbers and calories — something that she could really start to obsess about.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is limited on the NHS and she gets only one session every two weeks
Soon, her weight went so low that her life was in danger and she had to be taken to a mental-health unit for eating disorders. She was distraught and it was terrifying — we thought we might lose her. Since then, she has “stabilised” and is able to attend school in the morning to study for her GCSEs, although she still has a very low body-mass index and is at starvation level. I have given up my job to be there to support her during her breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. I take her to the clinic every day and she eats every evening and at weekends in hospital.
Sadly, she is still not able to contemplate the idea of putting on any weight. She says that every time she eats, the negative voices in her head become so overwhelming that she doesn’t know how she can carry on.
Even if a day goes well, things can turn and become a disaster in a short space of time. The smallest comment from a friend at school — that they are going on a diet, or that avocado contains fat — makes her sense of guilt around eating soar. We don’t know how long this will go on. It could be a year, five years, ten years.
Our one glimmer of hope is that she has good key workers at the hospital who try to talk things over with her. She now receives cognitive behavioural therapy, which tries to break the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions and give her practical strategies. But this is limited on the NHS and she gets only one session every two weeks.
Sometimes I want to shout: “If you just ate what was on your plate, everything would be all right!” But I know that the illness is not really about food, but about how my daughter is feeling. It’s about her self-esteem. She doesn’t like herself or believe in herself. And that is so much more complicated to solve.
‘His anxiety was so powerful he felt desperate’
Ian, father of Jack, 13 When my son was ten, he was due to go on a school residential trip. He had always been a sensitive child, inclined to brood, but he was socially confident. The night before the trip he was sick three times. He was shaking, crying, saying he felt ill. I knew it was anxiety because, sure enough, the second he saw his friends waiting by the coach, his symptoms vanished and he trotted off. But it left me reeling to see my son in that state.
He’s 13 now. A few months ago, my wife and I went out and my mother babysat. As we left the house, I saw some bloke selling dishcloths so I said to my mum: “Don’t open the door, there’s some weirdo knocking up and down the street.” I didn’t even think about it. When we got home my son was awake, petrified, convinced that “some weirdo” was lying in wait. I have to be so careful.
At least my mother was there, though. This year we made the big mistake of leaving our son with his 14-year-old sister while we went to a nearby pub for a friend’s birthday. My son insisted that he would be fine. We Facetimed. He was happy for an hour, but his sister was doing her own thing. He got spooked.
Within minutes he was sobbing. I tried to calm him. Abruptly, he pulled a knife out of the drawer and threatened “to kill myself” if we didn’t come home immediately. We sped home. He furiously reprimanded us for being “terrible parents” and said he wouldn’t actually have done anything. I believed him — most of the time he’s actually a content, confident child — but he could have injured himself. We felt shaken, ashamed for not taking his sensibilities seriously. His anxiety was so powerful he felt desperate. We’d put him at risk by minimising it.
I say to him, “Sometimes you feel your worry physically,” because I don’t think he’s conscious of what’s happening. I don’t think he understands his own anxiety. The other night, he came downstairs late, fretting. He’d gone to the local shops with his friend for a milkshake and a man in the café had been “looking at him weirdly”. He was now worrying about what might have happened.
He pulled a knife out of the drawer and threatened to kill himself
I said that next time, if it made him feel more comfortable, he could go with me. He was still agitated, though. He said he couldn’t think of anything happy to help himself to sleep. I told him not to try, but just to lie in bed and think of Mum making soup, Dad painting the stairs or the cat washing itself — just calm, reassuring images to remind him that he is safe and secure.
Your rational mind thinks: “His reaction isn’t necessary! Calm down!” I have to put aside my own horror at the crying and not shame him. It can be hard work. I can feel angry. Partly it’s that I want life not to be hard for him, but also I think he feels and expresses a lot of the family’s anxiety. I have to remind myself that his sensitive nature is part of what makes him a gorgeous, empathic boy.
That said, we are monitoring him. If his anxiety doesn’t reduce as he matures, then we will seek help.
‘Smoking weed definitely had an impact on my grades’
I started smoking marijuana on my 16th birthday. I went to a party with a few friends and one of them offered me some. After that, it became a regular social activity. It was easier to get than cigarettes or alcohol. There was a dealer, not that much older than me, 15 minutes’ walk from my house.
At first I didn’t smoke at home, mostly out of respect for my parents. However, after a year or so I started smoking in my bedroom when my parents were out. It was partly just something to do; but stress contributed too. I was revising for my A levels and my sister was struggling with an illness. It was about this time that I began struggling with sleep. I knew that marijuana would make me tired, so I started smoking before bed. That’s when it got bad. In the run-up to and during exam season, I was smoking two, sometimes three joints every night. They’d knock me out cold.
I didn’t feel that I could speak to anyone. My family had enough going on as it was. I lost a lot of friends, which upset me. I broke up with my girlfriend, who was worried about me, and my finances took a big hit. I was spending roughly £80 a week on weed.
I just about got the A-level grades that I needed to get to university, but not the grades I really wanted or was capable of getting. Smoking weed definitely had an impact on that. My mum found out eventually too, which was the worst day of my life. She just cried and cried. Still, I continued smoking when I got to university, getting high all the time and having huge arguments with my mum every few weeks.
The habit has had an impact on me mentally. I’m really forgetful now, much more than I used to be. I even forgot about a mock exam a few months ago. I’m paranoid too. After being arrested twice for possession, I’m one caution away from ending up in court. I think the police are around every corner.
I am now trying to give up weed, but I have dealt with all my problems alone. I wasn’t taught where to turn with my stress and concerns; I didn’t know that it was OK to seek help. I think school is one of the most stressful environments for any teenager, and needs to be better equipped to deal with stress and anxiety.
Does your child have a mental health issue? Spot the signs — by Rachel Carlyle Prince Harry revealed this week that he had sought counselling after bottling up his feelings of grief over his mother’s death during his teens and twenties. Young people are now talking much more openly about their anxieties. A survey of 540,000 students showed that British teenagers are among the most unhappy in the developed world. How do you know when the issue is serious? Psychologist Ian Williamson has this advice:
■ Do some digging before panicking and ringing the GP or a therapist. “Have their teachers noticed anything? Have other family members? Are they managing their friendships and relationships OK? It’s unusual for teenagers to operate in a vacuum where they are depressed but everything else in their lives is fine.” If you are still worried, contact your GP.
■ Just because they say that they’re depressed, it doesn’t mean they are. Williamson has had teenage patients begging to be put on medication — they’ve googled their symptoms and concluded that they have depression. “There can be a hysterical quality to their language,” he says. “They say, ‘I want to kill myself,’ and that puts parents off the track. Suggest a GP appointment. If they say, ‘I can’t do that day because I’ve got football,’ then you can get a pretty good idea that it’s not depression.” However, it can be a sign that you need to be more engaged with their lives and spend more time with them.
■ How often are they unhappy? “If your teenager is unhappy 24/7, as opposed to once a month, then it’s a problem,” Williamson says. “If they say life’s not worth living but are partying hard at the weekend, then it’s nothing more than a glitch. You can’t turn depression on and off. “You have to tease out what’s happening, and that takes time. Adolescence is time-intensive. That’s what makes it hard work.”
■ Angry or hysterical outbursts are usually tantrum-like behaviours because things aren’t going the way that the teenager wants, not a sign of impending psychological disorders.
■ Withdrawal from life is a sign that there’s a problem. If your teenager doesn’t want to see friends or take part in their usual activities and isn’t sleeping or eating well, these are signs.