Despite experiencing distressing symptoms from a young age, Ann-Marie D'Arcy-Sharpe, 32, only received her Bipolar Disorder diagnosis in her mid-twenties. She believes that a mandatory mental health curriculum would have enabled her to access treatment much earlier.
I have had Bipolar Disorder since I was at school, but I only got a diagnosis and the treatment that I needed in my mid-twenties.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.
Hearing from someone who truly understands mental illness through their own experience is so much more effective than just learning the facts.
When I was at school I was going through so much, but I had no idea what was happening to me or where to turn. As well as destructive and dangerous behaviours, I dealt with years of distress. Because I wasn't educated on mental health during my formative years, I took these behaviours, thoughts, and feelings out into the world once I left school.
"I thought that there was something wrong with me or I was just a bad person"
When I was younger, I didn’t know about mental illness - I had no idea that this could be an explanation for my experiences. I thought that there was something wrong with me or I was just a bad person. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t cope with things that other kids seemed to find so easy. I didn’t know that there were others going through the same things as me. I had no idea how to articulate what I was feeling. An effective mental health curriculum would ensure that no young person will feel the way I did: utterly alone.
Articulating experiences of mental illness
Young people need to be educated about how to articulate their symptoms in order to receive appropriate support. Even if they aren’t experiencing a particular mental illness, schools should emphasise the importance of taking care of this aspect of wellbeing.
It is also important that young people be educated on how to support those around them who are experiencing psychological distress. Mental health education would not only benefit the individual, but also those around them, as it would enable them to better support others. Open conversations about mental health need to be normalised from an early age so that young people grow up to be compassionate and better able to cope with adversity.
Finding validation in diagnosis
As much as I love the life that I have now, if I had help at a younger age I wouldn’t have had so many years of confusion, in which I felt completely isolated. I wish that when I was at school I had known that I was experiencing the symptoms of a valid mental illness and that there are services that provide specialist support. I wish I had been aware of what was happening to me so that I could have sought help and managed my symptoms.
If I had known that what I was going through wasn’t rare and that there were plenty of other young people going through similar things, I wouldn’t have felt so desperately alone.
Lived experience as an educational tool
As a young person, I would have felt inspired if I had heard from adults who, despite mental illness, were coping, receiving support, and living happy lives. Hearing from someone who truly understands mental illness through their own experience is so much more effective than just learning the facts.
I wish I had known about the existence of therapy and the multitude of treatments available. Perhaps I would have been aware that medication for mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of - it’s just as valid as taking medication for diabetes, having an inhaler for for asthma, or taking pain killers when you have a headache.
Mental health education would have enabled communication between myself and my parents. Given that they had no education on the subject of mental health, they were at a complete loss.
- See more: "Looking back, I can see how many of my fellow students were struggling - I was one of them"
- See more: Denying the traumatic origin of Dissociative Identity Disorder denies those who live with it a recovery
The benefits of prioritising mental health
Adults have a responsibility to prioritise young people’s mental health. By having a mandatory mental health curriculum, we are preparing teachers who will be able to educate children about mental health effectively; doctors who will be better equipped to understand their patients and provide the right help; management who will accept mental health issues as a valid reason to be absent; emergency room staff don't dismiss people presenting with suicidal ideation or behaviours; nurses who are more compassionate to people who have self-harmed; parents who can seek early intervention for their children after recognising symptoms; and more supportive friends.
I wish that, at school, I knew that no one has to experience mental illness unsupported.