I was 16 years old the first time I had a full blown panic attack, although I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was walking home from school with 2 friends a couple of days after starting sixth form when out of nowhere I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. All strength had gone from my legs, I couldn’t breathe, my heart was pounding and I became hot and lightheaded. I was so scared I had to call my mum to pick me up.
Even when I got home I couldn’t shake the feeling. I was sure I was dying – a heart attack, a stroke, undetected cancer – and started googling my symptoms. Of course anxiety was on the list of possible causes but I skipped right over it. The sensations I felt were too scary and were real, it couldn’t be caused by my brain. I wasn’t even worried about anything at the time! Unfortunately it was like the floodgates opened and after that the panic attacks just kept coming.
Looking back with what I know now, I’ve experienced anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember. I have memories of being as young as 6 and being too focussed on my breathing til it made me dizzy, worrying about dying, avoiding going out with friends sometimes because of irrational thoughts and so much more. However, my first full blown panic attack changed the game. I was constantly anxious about what mysterious life threatening illnesses could be causing my symptoms. It made me anxious about anxiety itself, and I became unable to leave the house because I was too scared of feeling like that in public again and sure I was dying – which of course affected my time at school.
I did alright in my GCSE’s and looked forward to starting sixth form and doing only the subjects I enjoyed, but anxiety and a lack of support got in the way. My friends at school couldn’t really relate to what I was feeling, and didn’t know how to help. I started avoiding going because I was feeling so bad, and when I was at school all I could think about was “am I feeling okay?” or “when am I going to have another panic attack?”. I couldn’t concentrate and fell behind on my work. This combined with poor attendance made my head of year recommend leaving school. It was obvious they were concerned about how my results would affect their averages. They were uneducated on mental health in young people to understand my situation, and were unprepared to offer the support I needed. There wasn’t anyone or anywhere I felt I could go to at school for help or to feel safe when I wasn’t feeling right. If there was more information available for both students and teachers it might have been a different story, but it was made clear to me my only choice was to drop out.
It took me a while to get back to normal again – I didn’t leave my house for a long time. I started experiencing depression alongside my anxiety. I hesitated to start medication for anxiety because I was scared of what it would do to me and I didn’t find therapy helpful at first because I didn’t put in the work. Getting better felt like learning a second language, having to reintroduce myself to a lot of things I used to find easy.
About a year later I started going out, seeing my friends more and living again. I still felt anxious and depressed at times but it wasn’t as often or anywhere near as intense, and I felt more able to push the thoughts out of my head. By the time another year passed I wanted to move forward with my life and felt strong enough again to do so. I did some research and found a university in London that offered degrees with built in foundation courses which you didn’t need A Levels to apply to. I was accepted and I looked forward to learning again.
Moving out and going to Uni came with massive challenges. I was away from home which was my safe space, and in an environment which involved a lot of partying which takes its toll on your mental health. I made great friends in my halls and was making great memories but my anxiety was high again. I struggled to go out if my friends were going somewhere I felt was too far from my flat for me to get back quickly if I started feeling weird. I also stopped going to lectures because I was worried I wasn’t smart enough, and felt like all the other students would notice if I had a panic attack. I was once again advised to drop out and reapply for the following academic year.
Even though Universities are a lot more flexible and open minded about a lot of things than schools are, I still wasn’t getting all the support I needed. Disability services are offered with deadline extensions and financial help, but the processes to verify your disability and get these benefits are long and often required to be done in person. Starting University is daunting for everyone, and worrying about deadlines as well as your finances is stressful even for people without mental illnesses. Not only should more support be available but it should be more accessible.
I started a different course at Uni the following academic year and felt a lot more comfortable. In the years that followed my mental health has had many ups and downs. The good times have been amazing and the bad bits have been a struggle. Having a good support system is key to getting through, which includes having understanding people at work/uni/school. You can’t just hope you’ll be lucky enough to find someone who understands, there needs to be information and education available to create safe spaces everywhere for people who struggle with mental health. Awareness and understanding has always helped me.