Living with a Serious Mental Illness
16 May, 2023
This blog post, by Nathan Randles, Patient Representative at RCPsych, is part of the content produced for our 2023 coverage of Mental Health Awareness Week.
I first began exhibiting symptoms of my mental illness at age 12. Now aged 23, I have had precious time to reflect on my experiences since then, and I can now discuss the things I have learned from them.
Growing up in Oldham, I struggled to socialise; I had moved from one school to another and found that while most of my peers had formed strong bonds from very early ages, I had not. Instead of facing this head-on, I retreated into books, where the concept of having to speak to other children was not one, I would not have to consider.
Unfortunately, from this point on, my social deficits would only increase. I began to reject the world around me that I believed rejected me. And the fantastical worlds I could read about would form the scaffolding to support my reason for existing. This scaffold could only stand for so long.
The first instances of the scaffold beginning to collapse came when I started secondary school. At age 11, my tactic was to find anywhere I could be alone to read during breaks. I had no interest in making friends and no desire to speak to anyone about a problem I didn't feel I had.
For now, the scaffold held.
The second instance came only one year later when I first took a blade to my skin. It was just a superficial scratch. However, the massive wave of relief it brought on was incredible. The years isolated from people with minimal dialogue and ridicule could all be sliced away; I felt a sensation of relaxation I had never found before. I believed I found my form of expression: mine alone and something I would not have to justify.
Yet over the next four years in school, I realized I was not expressing myself. But in the midst of an addiction spiral.
What began as a few minor knicks had become major open wounds, several skin infections and repeated public humiliation each time I had a physical education class.
The first two were easy for me to face and handle. The most challenging part was how my peers would behave around them. By age 16, I had given up on lying about the source of the injuries. And each time I was teased or interrogated by the other boys in the changing rooms, I'd shrug and move past them. What I could not move past, though, was the embarrassment, humiliation and shame that came with the stares, comments, and jokes.
In my final year of school, it had all become too much. I could not sustain the damage I was inflicting on myself alongside my exams and lack of prospects.
The scaffold had all but collapsed.
I finally reached out to my school for support. After a humiliating meeting with my school's nurse, they told me I would be taken to A&E by a staff member, or I could attend with my mother that evening. I chose the latter.
I spent four and a half hours waiting, surrounded by people who, in my mind, had genuine reasons to be there. Eventually, however, I was seen. Following an emergency mental health assessment, I had my first appointment at CAMHS.
There, I met a psychiatrist, a practitioner and other members of the team who would permanently alter the direction of my life. Diagnoses were made, and medications and therapies commenced. I quickly found this new environment that valued my voice, one I could flourish and grow. I became socially competent with people my age; I learned how to articulate myself and connect with others who have experienced similar things.
My time receiving treatment in CAMHS was the beginning of how I learned to live and value living as me. Not through the lens of fiction or using self-harm as a crutch, but as a human, capable of being part of society. By age 16 and as a patient in a mental health service, my life had finally begun.
Seven years on, I am now a medical student, advocate, and speaker. I have a voice, and I know how to use it. Every achievement I have made since walking through the doors of CAMHS can be traced back to that moment.
I still have those sombre moments and occasionally find myself back in the dark place I used to languish. But now I know how to pull myself back up and out into the world I once feared and find joy within it.