Monday, 17 November 2014

Anti-bullying Week - "Let's stop bullying for all."

I wasn't surprised to hear that according to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, studies have found that children and young people who have a disability (physical and/or mental) and/or special educational needs are more likely to be affected by bullying than other groups. That's why this year's Anti-Bullying Week theme is "Let's stop bullying for all" with the aim of tackling this issue and encouraging children and young people to celebrate diversity.



During your school years, it's common to hear about bullying. Whether you're being affected directly or know someone who is, most children and young people seem to have some experience of it. But when I read The Annual Bullying Survey 2014, I must admit that it hit home how much of an issue bullying still is in this country. The survey found that 45% of young people have experienced bullying before the age of 18. What I found even scarier is the impact this bullying is having on young people's emotional and mental health:. 83% reported bullying had a negative impact on their-self esteem, 30% of those who have been bullied have gone on to self-harm as a result of what they have experienced and 10% have even attempted suicide because of the impact of bullying. No one should feel or experience this and it's extremely concerning to think that despite these shocking statistics, almost 40% have never even told anyone they were being bullied.

Bullying can be hard to identify, which makes it even more difficult to provide support to someone experiencing it. If you have a disability or have special educational needs, communication may be difficult and therefore reporting bullying becomes incredibly daunting. As someone who has personally experienced bullying in many forms, and having had depression and anxiety at the time, I know how scary it is to speak up.

During my high school years in particularly, I was a target for bullies. Name-calling was the most common - several times a week a group of girls would tell me I was ugly. I was picked on for being skinny, being told that when I was older I would 'wake up fat' one day. I was spat at and shoved into in the corridor. Perhaps the worst thing I experienced was one evening when I stayed after school with a friend and we went to the toilets. A group of girls who had been bullying me for some time ganged up on us and one of them ended up physically assaulting me. I won't ever forget how the other girls stood there with smiles on their faces, some of them laughing as I was punched in the head and chest. Thankfully, a teacher spotted the end of the attack which backed up my story but the next day, the girl who had attacked me was in school like nothing had happened. She smirked at me as I walked past her on the stairs. It wasn't until my mum came up to the school that she was suspended for just two days. Even more surprisingly, I was taken into the office of my deputy head and I'll never forget his words. The school were aware of my depression and anxiety, and the fact I was receiving support for it and yet he had the cheek to say to me "Kimberley, you know how you have 'issues'? Well other people have issues too." They were trying to justify what this bully had done to me by comparing myself to her, urging me to not take the matter any further. I stormed out of his office and didn't speak to anyone for the rest of the day. This girl had assaulted me and yet because we were in school, because we weren't classed as adults in the eyes of the law, it was like it didn't matter so much. Despite the fact this happened almost ten years ago, it still haunts me now and it undoubtedly caused my mental health to deteriorate and knocked my self-esteem.

It's important to recognise that bullying comes in many forms: the Anti-Bullying Alliance describes bullying as 'the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power.' Whether it be name-calling, physical abuse, teasing, threats, exclusion or cyber-bullying, all matters should be handled seriously, efficiently and with the victim's best interests in mind.

So my advice if you're being bullied - please don't be afraid. I have been in your shoes. I have cried myself to sleep, scared of what will happen at school the next day. I know that having a mental health diagnosis can make it even harder. But have faith in yourself. You deserve better than this. You deserve to feel and be safe. You deserve an education and to succeed. Your voice matters. No one else can replace you. Speak to someone, any one. It doesn't have to be a teacher. It can be a friend, your parents, your sibling, a youth worker, or if even that seems too much there are helplines and charities that can help you get through this. Do you find it difficult to say what you're feeling? Then write it down and give it to someone. Draw it. Write a poem. Do whatever feels comfortable but PLEASE speak up. Bullying is NEVER acceptable, regardless of who you are, where you come from, what you believe, whatever.

And if you know someone who is being bullied? Just be there. Ask how they are. Listen. Invite them to sit with you for lunch. Sit next to them in class. Just giving them a smile can be the most wonderful act of kindness. Don't be a bystander.

The amount of information, resources and help available is amazing so utilise it. Here are my top picks of places to go:

Anti-Bullying Alliance - A brilliant website which co-ordinates the national Anti Bullying Week. It's full of resources for children and young people and those who work with them, as well as parents and carers, plus it has a dedicated section for supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

ChildLine - ChildLine has lots of useful information about bullying on their website but you can also give their counsellors a call if you want to talk to someone. They also have options to talk to a counsellor online via a 1-2-1 chat or email.

Bullying UK - Part of Family Lives, Bullying UK has information for everyone, including information about cyber bullying at bullying at work. There is also a forum for parents and carers. They also have a helpline or you can talk to someone online.

Monday, 27 October 2014

BBC Free Speech – Can you love your mental illness?

Trigger warning: this post does discuss the topic of self-harm. 

Last Tuesday (21st October) saw BBC Three bring the topic of mental health and young people into the spotlight once again in their programme Free Speech. You may remember last summer BBC Three had a whole bunch of documentaries discussing different topic surrounding youth mental health for their It’s a Mad World season and the response sparked lots of conversation and debate, highlighting both the positives and negatives of the of mental health care for young people. Free Speech did not cease to have exactly the same effect, with their perhaps most controversial question being “can you ever like your mental illness?”

If you’ve not seen Free Speech before, it’s a lively debating show which features a panel of high-profile figures with personal, political or professional interest. This week’s guest panel consisted of Alistair Campbell, Dr. Sarah Wollaston, Zoe Hardman and Jon Watson. The show was aired lived from a mental health hospital in London with the audience being made up of those with personal experiences of a mental health issue, deemed to be the first time this has ever happened on British television. The show regularly uses social media throughout its duration to gather opinions from the general public. It’ s a great tool to encourage debate amongst young people and give them the platform to share their views.

They featured a personal story of one girl’s experience with the stigma surrounding self-harm, which whilst I found difficult to watch, it was done in a thoughtful way without stereotypical images and what I would personally consider ‘unnecessary’ information. Instead, they focused on how much of an issue self-harm amongst young people currently is and the reactions some people have towards it – a much more delicate and thoughtful way of raising self-harm as an issue in my opinion, without discrediting it yet still reinforcing how very real this issue is.  

The question that really got the cogs in my brain turning was “can you ever like my mental illness?” Apparently the reasoning behind asking this question is further to a number of celebrities speaking out about their own mental illnesses and declaring how they like certain aspects of their condition. I must hold my hands up and admit – when they first asked the question on the show, my first response was to laugh. Were they joking? Who loves their mental illness? They’ve just discussed the stigma surrounding mental illness and the astounding flaws in mental health care for it to then follow on to that question? Immediately, the pain and suffering that I have not only experienced on a personal level but have also witnessed in others sprung to my mind. I couldn’t count the number of times I have sat and imagined a life without my diagnosis, how different it would be and how much more I could do.

By the end of the show though, and after listening to how some people in the audience had recognised some positives from their diagnosis, I reflected and saw that my illnesses have perhaps given me some traits I’m happy to have. When I’m having a good day, I can recognise it and celebrate it for starters. I’m grateful for those days perhaps more than someone without the diagnosis I have and I try and make the most of them because I appreciate what it’s like to feel as though all hope as gone. Plus, what some people may class as being ‘overly emotional’ or sensitive is actually what makes me a good listener. I love hearing what other people have to say and will do anything and everything I can to help them with a dilemma. The people I love and care about know my door is always welcome with tea and cake waiting should they need it. I’m also slowly starting to learn how to say no because I know that it’s better for my health sometimes, whereas before, I’d perhaps have pushed myself to beyond what I should have done. Don’t get me wrong, I like to challenge myself and my illnesses, but I can recognise when I need to slow down and nest for a bit and I’m starting to realise that’s a good thing rather than something to feel guilty about!

So all in all, would I change my illnesses? Yes. Do I like them? Certainly not and I don’t have a shred of doubt about that! But they’ve taught me things and given me experiences not everyone else would necessarily have and that for me is a positive. I’ve gone places that I never thought I’d come back from and yet here I am. That counts for something, right?

If you missed last week’s Free Speech, you can watch it by visiting this link - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04m9twr/free-speech-series-3-episode-8.

I’d also love to hear what you think – do YOU like your mental illness?


Thursday, 16 October 2014

OCD - 'Cos it ain't all about the hand washing.

In light of it being OCD Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate (and important!) to tell you a bit about my OCD.

I'm gonna be honest - when I finally got my diagnosis earlier this year, I burst in to tears. Part of me was relieved - I had been experiencing symptoms of OCD since the age of 7, but I was also ashamed believe it or not. There's such a stigma and misunderstanding surrounding OCD that I saw it as a bit of a death sentence in terms of what I wanted to achieve in life. I envisaged the turning down of job offers, not making university or never meeting anyone who would be able to accept this diagnosis.

Now for those who know me, you'll know I'm not the tidiest of people. When I get ready in the mornings, make up brushes are everywhere, there will be several items of clothing laying on the floor because I can't decide what to wear and because I work early mornings, you'll probably find that I leave a half full coffee cup next to my hair dryer. But this does not mean that I do not have OCD. One of the most common misconceptions about OCD is that you must be cleaning your hands so many times a day or you like everything done a certain way, etc. Don't get me wrong - for some people this IS their life, this IS their reality, but this ISN'T the case for everyone. In the same way we experience the flu different to one another, people who are living with OCD can show symptoms in many ways.

For me, it's a combination. Hand washing is a big thing. I HATE germs. Actually that's not even correct - I'm frightened of them, the ones that can make me ill, hence the emetophobia. Washing my hands is a ritual and it has to be done a certain way. You might be saying "well... there's nothing wrong with a bit of extra caution," and sure, you might be correct in some ways. But imagine not being able to eat out with friends and family. If you do, you're limited before you even look at the menu. No meat (except beef), no salad, nothing that hasn't been cooked, including bread. Imagine seeing germs on your cutlery, despite them having gone through a goodness-knows-how-hot dishwasher. When you use the toilet in public, opening door handles with your foot. Scolding your hands until they're red raw(and paying the painful consequences the next morning). It might sound like nothing to you but if I can't do these things, I feel unbalanced, wrong, guilty, scared and I count down the hours of the potential window I could get ill in. It engulfs my entire concentration, even if I'm busy it'll completely cloud my focus and sense of judgement.

Another big part are intrusive thoughts that go over and over and over in my head. I'm not prepared to share them on this blog as I'm ashamed of some of them. These thoughts are NOT me, hence why they upset me so much. But there have been nights where I've laid in bed, sweating from head to toe, because my brain is telling me to carry something out or act a certain way or do "something" and it doesn't shut up. It's constant, I see the words, I feel them and my heart races. These thoughts are horrible. It's like they consume "Kim" and replace her with some other evil little girl. Now we all experience intrusive thoughts at points, but imagine this every day at some point. When you're in a meeting trying to concentrate, when you have someone you love trying to talk to you about something important or when you're sitting in a lecture surrounded by a 100 people. Then it's not so comfortable and easy to just get on with.

I have this obsession with balance as well. For example - if I don't get out of the shower a certain way, something bad will happen unless I do that bad thing to balance it out. Or if I say something positive about myself, I have to balance it out with something negative (and worse). Hence why recovery, for me, is difficult. Challenging negative thoughts means I have to do something to 'teach myself a lesson' as my brain likes to put it. Frustrating.

When I got my diagnosis, I mentioned before that part of me was relieved and I am slowly but surely coming to terms with it. Thanks to a wonderful doctor and the support of loved ones, I've been trying to learn more about my OCD and trying to understand the way it can control me. I'm not saying this in itself lessens the OCD but it certainly makes me feel less alone to know that there are so many other people out there just like me.

Which brings me on to my final point. So many people I know do not know of my diagnosis. I can hide it by hiding myself if necessary. Sometimes I am ashamed of it. Sometimes I am happy to share my story and talk about it and I hope in time as a society the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding OCD is corrected. I am still me, I am still Kim, I just have an extra 'bit' that some other people don't. So I ask that this week, you don't think of my rituals as 'weird', don't think me odd for liking things done a certain way and remember that my intrusive thoughts are not me. OCD affects individuals in all different ways but we should not be afraid to open up and talk to someone about the struggles we are having with it. That's OCD - we have to live with it and therefore so do you.



I urge you to find out more about OCD and make an effort to help OCD-UK work towards supporting those affected by OCD. They've even created a super duper website easily broken down t teach you about OCD and to understand the reality of this illness. Visit thatsocd.info for more information.