How you can support young people this Children’s Mental Health Week
Hope Virgo is the Author of Stand Tall Little Girl, a book about facing up to anorexia, and a leading advocate for people with eating disorders. She shared her personal story with Cognita school leaders at the Global Education Leadership Conference 2018 in October. For Children’s Mental Health Week 2019, Hope shares her advice on what we can do to better support those around us.
I always struggled quite a bit when I was growing up with my emotions. I hated feeling anything, but particularly distressing things. I often felt quite lost, and alone. But being who I was, I would always try and put on that brave face. Push further forward and make myself feel okay. Maybe that was why I was so suited to Anorexia when she knocked on my door when I was 13 years old.
I didn’t really understand it at first, I didn’t understand why I had this voice in my head. But I liked it at the same time. I liked the fact that it gave me real purpose every single day. When I did what it told me to do I got this sense of achievement, value, satisfaction and it praised me.
Little did I know that the Anorexia that I thought was my actual best friend was slowly but surely killing me. Sucking all life out of me. Fast forward those four years and I was an outpatient at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). But now the Anorexia was not making me happy; instead it was making me completely miserable. All I wanted was for that voice in my head to stop.
After six months at CAMHS, with a failing heart, yellowing skin, my hair falling out, I was admitted to a mental health hospital.
What would have helped me?
I don’t want this to turn in to a blame game, but a few things that would have helped:
- Having space to talk about how I felt; making space to sit and listen, phone-free time for this to happen and really taking that time out to talk.
- Learning about healthy eating and healthy exercise. We live in a society where everything is so focussed on calories and image; where people are constantly being judged. We have a role to educate young people about healthy eating and exercise but at the same time make sure they are not getting fixated on calories as a bad thing.
- Having some understanding of mental health. This is crucial for everyone and we need to find a way to instil mental health in to everyday teaching and within the curriculum – this will help individuals build up their resilience to take on life.
What can you do this Children’s Mental Health Week (4-10 February 2019 in the UK)?
We know that 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age (source: Mental Health Foundation).
We all have a duty to try and tackle this. We are living in a mental health epidemic and there are few things we can do this week – indeed, at any time – to help raise awareness and get some momentum going.
- Discuss wellbeing with your young person.
- Plan an awareness event so that your young people know that it is okay to talk about how we feel.
- If you are worried about someone, reach out to them.
- Remember that you are not alone.
Where am I now?
I am now in recovery and have been since I entered that hospital 11 years ago. I managed my recovery pretty much since leaving hospital with one relapse, but now feel in a better place with my anorexia. I know that that voice in my head is not worth listening to, that it lies to me, beats me up and whatever it tells me is a load of rubbish. I have my coping mechanisms in place and I now use my story to help other young people.
Wherever you are in your journey please know that you can get to a place where you can live a really happy life. It won’t always be easy and your recovery may not be linear but it is totally worth hanging in there and fighting to reach that point.