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Living with OCD: 'Someone would turn a dictionary upside down and ask me if I was bothered'

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According to Anxiety UK, it is estimated that 1 in 6 young people suffer from an anxiety disorder, whether this manifests in Panic Attacks or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

Image Courtesy of Boston Wyatt

Image courtesy of Boston Wyatt

Mental Health Charity Time to Change have recently launched their Ask Twice Campaign, which reveals that nine in ten young people would say that they’re fine to family and friends when they’re actually suffering from a mental health issue.

Challenging the misconceptions around OCD and panic attacks with the charity is 18-year-old aspiring Oxford Law student Boston Wyatt, who is currently studying her A-Levels in Winchester. She recalls suffering from mental health issues from just eight years old, despite not having a formal diagnosis from CAMHS until she was 14.

As a sixth form student, Boston believes that the younger generation has a different understanding of mental health issues when compared to the older generation. Since mental health is so topical, there has been a definite shift in the way that these issues are being brought into conversation in schools, she says.

From her secondary school days, Boston recalls mental health issues being addressed in assemblies with charities coming in to talk, and the introduction of a “space” where students were encouraged to talk about their mental health issues to others.

Although many aspects of this are positive, a generational difference creates a distance that can discourage many young people from talking about their mental health with their parents. This held Boston back. She says: “I feel like someone like me, who comes from a family with conservative parents that don’t really understand mental issues, struggles to talk. There are still a lot of acceptance and recognition issues.”

Boston speaks about the turning point that sparked vital discussion in her family, leading to a discussion about what she was experiencing. When she was 13, her dad had a stressful work deadline that led to him experiencing a panic attack. She recalls that “he went grey in the face, started feeling faint, sweating and shaking. I was really worried about him because he looked so ill”. He told her that he felt “panicky”, to which she responded, “well this is how I feel every now and then, when I have one”.

She believes that this experience was necessary for her dad to finally realise the severity of anxiety and panic attacks. Boston says: “It’s an actual state of panic and illness. It’s not just feeling worried – we all feel worried and nervous sometimes.”

Boston also believes that this difference in understanding, or lack of in some cases, feeds through to the help that's offered to young people, because “that generation are the ones that are in the government” - and are therefore the ones that are in a position to help, should they wish to. 

On addressing this, she suggests that “we need greater media coverage”. Though mental health is continually being addressed in the news, Boston believes that, without actual acknowledgment of these issues, “the opinions of the older generation won’t change”. Unlike students, who are being addressed as a whole in schools, Boston believes that there is no such “direct access” to the older generation, thus education needs to be implemented through news and politics. She suggests that “signposting” the symptoms of mental illness would also be helpful: “I’m not saying that people need to start self-diagnosing, but they need to realise that they shouldn’t be feeling sad or down every day of the week.”

Social media is one of the biggest tools that is being used by many charities and organisations to change misconceptions and open up discussions surrounding mental illness. Many teenagers and young people talk to others that they can relate to, whether this is on apps like Instragram, or anonymous forums, leading to them feeling less alone. Boston believes that anonymity is really useful for this, because whatever someone says “isn’t tied to them”. It certainly has its dangers too, though: “If someone does need help, then there’s perhaps a difficulty in reaching them,” she says. In order to avoid this, she suggests that there should be more “safeguarding”, with links to Samaritan helplines, too.

However, like anonymity, social media has its downsides too. Piers Morgan was recently criticised for a controversial tweet in which he agreed that it’s ‘fashionable’ to have a mental illness. Mental health has become so topical that it’s arguably becoming overgeneralised and romanticised, which subsequently perpetuates negative stereotypes and associations. For example, you don't have to scroll for long on Twitter to find someone tweeting about being ‘depressed’ over something trivial, like a Love Island break-up.

Boston feels that this culture almost creates an “element of competition – everything affects everyone differently, so no-one should be trying to one-up anyone”. She also somewhat agrees that, for this reason, mental health illnesses have become fashionable. She tells us about a friend that recently posted a graphic photo on social media depicting self-harm, with no trigger warning.

“I don’t see where she was going with it," she says. "If you’re going to raise awareness, do it in a positive way. These posts don’t invoke discussion; they are ways of getting attention and sympathy.” This perpetuates the stigma that people will “only talk about mental health to gain attention, which is not the case”.

Opening up about her mental health issues was vital for Boston. Although she suggests that the younger generation have a different understanding of such issues, it wasn’t easy for her to open up. She says: “I think definitely when you’re in school, it’s still a bit taboo to talk to friends about it – people may question why you’re off-loading it onto them, and I think that’s why you feel like you have to go to an adult or a professional.”

Boston has been diagnosed with anxiety and OCD by CAMHS, but still awaits counselling after being referred to the adult department. Her relationship with her mental health began to change when she opened up. Despite teachers knowing that she was sufferinfg throughout her school experience, she kept it very much to herself. Speaking out was an empowering exercise for her, as she began to view her mental illness as an “extension” of herself, rather than something that was “defining”. She analogises this to playing football: “It was just a thing I had, just like if someone had the skill to play football. It’s not something defining or restrictive.”

During her GCSEs, Boston found that her experiences enabled her to help others. She referred a close friend suffering from panic attacks to the school councillor, who then referred her to the doctor, ending in a formal diagnosis. She believes that this formal diagnosis can be really helpful, too because “you know that it’s not your fault, and that these feelings are as a result of something.” Encouragingly, her friend went on to achieve high GCSE results.  

Boston tells us that if she could tell her past-self one thing about mental illness, it would be to say that “you’re not the only one”. Although “it sounds cliché, there is help. It’s nothing new, and I’m lucky to be of a generation where people understand that.”

In speaking out with Time to Change, Boston hopes to change the way that OCD and panic attacks are viewed, particularly in the environment of schools and colleges. Speaking about OCD in particular, she says: “I am sat at my desk right now and it’s messy as anything – I don’t need to stack books alphabetically”. In school, Boston experienced people playing on the stereotypical association of OCD with extreme tidiness: “someone would turn a dictionary upside down and ask me if I was bothered.”

Mental health, in general, affects people in different ways; there are several types of OCD and several triggers for panic attacks or depression. Boston also wants people to “panic less” about panic attacks – “I’m not like a TNT bomb that’s going to fuse all the time,” she says.

Educating others on mental health issues and challenging such misconceptions, both in the younger and older generation, would certainly encourage a more open and honest discussion. For many, like Boston, it is not until they speak out about their mental health issues that their relationship with it begins to change in a positive way.

Boston is a Young Champion for Time to Change's Ask Twice campaign. Find out more about Ask Twice here. 




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