LONDON – I remember clearly the first time I thought about killing myself — thought about it as a serious proposition, something it was actually within my power to do. My mother caught me in the bathroom, cutting my legs with my dad’s razor — not self-harming, just a clumsy first attempt to shave. She told me I was too young to start shaving my legs. I was setting myself up for a lifetime of misery, she said. I pointed out that I already had a life of misery, thank you, and if I had to endure one more day at school with those kids calling me werewolf, I would just have to kill myself. I was 11 years old.
I don’t remember what my mother said; she probably laughed and rolled her eyes: the child’s being melodramatic again. But once I had considered the possibility, I held on to it secretly, tucked it away like a coin I could always spend as a last resort, if things got really bad.
I thought about it many more times over the next few years, most seriously around 14/15, when the bullying was at its worst, but I never mentioned it to anyone. I thought they would tell me not to be silly. Depression was not much talked about when I was a teen, in the late 1980s; I knew it only as a grand, important thing that afflicted famous dead artists. It was not a word I would ever have applied to my own dark moods. Thank God we had Morrissey or I would have felt no one understood.
Besides, teenagers are supposed to be moody, aren’t they? It comes with the job: all that door-slamming, grunting, shutting themselves in festering rooms writing bad poetry; hating the world, their parents, their teachers, the cool kids, the bullies, but most of all themselves for being all wrong, for not having the right shoes, the right phone, the right body, the right attitude, the right sexuality. Teenagers are melodramatic by nature — it’s all those hormones, say adults, who so quickly forget the intensity of those lurching highs and lows.
Perhaps that’s why teenage depression is so often underestimated, dismissed as “mood swings” or “teen angst.” We also forget the crippling shame and embarrassment of adolescence; how hard it is to admit how lost and lonely you feel, how unhappy in your own skin. And if you ever do find the courage to confide in someone, and are made to feel you’re being silly, you probably won’t risk it again.
According to a report from the new mental health charity MindFull, based on a British survey of more than 2,000 young adults, one in five children has symptoms of depression and nearly a third have thought about suicide before the age of 16. Many don’t seek help and, of those who do, nearly half feel they never found the support they needed. There is a prevailing culture among young teens of feeling let down or misunderstood when it comes to mental health issues. As a result, the depression often worsens and can find an outlet in self-harming, eating disorders, running away or, in the worst case, suicide attempts.
MindFull, an initiative from the team behind the successful website Beat Bullying, has developed its innovative service for 11- to 17-year-olds out of direct feedback from young people themselves about the kind of support they would find most effective. Given that the Internet is most teens’ first resource for connection and information, it makes sense to provide an online destination that can offer professional and/or informal support, facts or education. On the day of its high-profile launch earlier this month, including an eye-catching M&C Saatchi advert on YouTube, the site was picking up a new user every minute.
It’s a truly revolutionary approach, combining the appeal of social media with the expertise of trained mental health professionals. Users can chat to “mentors,” young people their own age who have been trained to offer peer-to-peer support, or send confidential messages to qualified therapists. Teens can use the site anonymously, thereby avoiding the stigma and the fear of being judged; they can access self-help resources targeted at their age group; seek advice if they’re worried about a friend; or join a chatroom to share their experiences with others.
The part I find most touching is that children who feel they have been helped through their difficulties can choose to train as mentors and offer their hard-won wisdom to others struggling with the same situations.
I have often, over the past decade, thanked the God-shaped hole that the Internet did not exist when I was at school. Everyday stories of online or phone bullying make the misery I experienced in my teens pale by comparison. We are so used to reports of the damage social media can do to teens that it’s easy to forget the internet can also be a huge force for good to a lonely, sad adolescent, as MindFull’s site is proving. I’d have been so grateful to have a resource such as this when I was 15; somewhere to ask my embarrassing questions or pour my heart out when I felt no one knew what I was going through. Morrissey was all right, up to a point, but this would have been better.
It took me nearly another 20 years after the incident with the razor to be diagnosed with recurring depression and find treatment — to put that coin away where I’m not tempted to take it out and look at it. I have an 11-year-old of my own now, a child who, I can already see, feels his joys and sorrows intensely. I don’t yet know if he will go through the dark days that I endured as a teen. Like any parent, I would give anything to spare him that, but if I can’t, and if there are times when he feels he can’t talk to me, it’s an almighty relief to know there are resources such as MindFull available to him, free of charge and immediately accessible.
Some years ago, I was floored by an item on the news about a 15-year-old girl who had hanged herself because she was being bullied at school. The bullying, as described in the report, didn’t sound particularly extreme — more the kind I experienced, the slow war of attrition on your self-esteem — but it was enough, evidently, to make this child believe that her life was unbearable.
If websites like MindFull prevent even one more death, it will be worth every penny of investment.
Stephanie Merritt was deputy literary editor of The Observer from 1998-2005 and is now a feature writer.