Pausing MY GRAD SCHEME WAS THE BEST THING FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH
By David JS
Taking time out from his competitive grad scheme to focus on recovering his mental health was never part of David's post-uni plan. In this article, he explains why we should always listen to our bodies and our minds, even if it feels like a detour.
Trigger warning: writer makes reference to self-harm and suicide.
The permanence of social media permits an accessible form of nostalgia that was never possible before our generation’s coming of age. Creating a virtual timeline of your life, successes, failures, and everything in between, practically summons a dangerous level of rumination. Maybe if we sift through the posts we can identify “where it all went wrong” or “what we could have done differently”. As illustrated above, four years ago I was accepted onto a social work graduate scheme, and was already constructing a bright vision of the future for myself in my head and making that vision as concrete as I could by enshrining it in words on social media, complete with “feeling delighted” emoji. Four years later, I sit at the dining table in my father’s house, halfway across the world in the USA, having had to defer both my social work graduate portfolio, and the Masters I had hoped to complete. My deteriorating mental health has made this an absolute necessity.
The me in 2015 might be disappointed by the way things have turned out, but I’m not sure he would be all that surprised.
“Mental Health” can mean something different for everyone. Over the years for me, mental health has come to mean “battle”. This battle is with myself, my brain, my mind, and the parts of me that find comfort in pessimism, anxiety, and pain. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it feels dramatic. More specifically, depression is the name of the game here, with a side order of anxiety, like the unwelcome salad that accompanies the meal you didn’t order, and do not wish to eat, at the restaurant you didn’t want to go to. This has been the case for many years now, however on the 2nd February 2015 I had clearly allowed myself to feel hope, and a measure of confidence that I could create the future for myself that I wanted to create.
Over the following years the “battle” with myself continued. I practically collapsed in relief upon receiving the news that I had managed a 2.1 in my degree, despite gnawing anxiety and overwhelming dread destroying any semblance of a revision schedule I’d attempted to create. The “gap year” I took after graduation could be considered more of a “tester year” to see how I’d manage to cope with adulthood post-graduating. Rather than travelling, I worked a couple of jobs in an attempt to gain experience prior to becoming a social worker. I also spent the year in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, something I will be forever grateful to the NHS for. By the time I started my role as a student social worker I felt about as prepared as I ever would. My student year was challenging beyond what I had ever imagined, but I rose to the occasion as best I could, and looking back on it I can allow myself to feel proud of a successful year.
During this year I may have suffered with a living situation that cultivated my deepest paranoia and anxiety, but that’s a different story, and for my own sake I will continue to view this year as a successful one.
When looking back, and trying to identify “where things went wrong” I found myself repeatedly pinpointing the beginning of 2018 onwards as the time in question. Of course, life experiences cannot be squashed neatly into convenient time boxes; identifying periods of poor mental health isn’t like blocking out two weeks for a ski holiday in the Alps, surprisingly enough. But it was evident to me that during 2018 I had begun to experience more frequent periods of heightened anxiety, and lowered mood. While it is true that being a social worker can be stressful, and that the work was causing me to feel increasingly overwhelmed, I could tell there was something more to the way I was feeling. It was around this time that I recognised I’d need to leave work after finishing my Masters year. My Dad and his wife generously offered for me to spend some time living with them in the USA, and I gladly accepted the offer. I knew of other people that planned on taking time off after completing the graduate scheme, so I tried to tell myself that this was part of the plan, rather than a personal failure.
As the weeks and months passed I attempted to address what was happening as best I could. My manager and I had a good relationship, and he pointed me in the direction of a free therapeutic resource I could access through work. Six sessions later I left therapy feeling grateful for the help, but no better within myself.
It was as if I was sinking slowly into quicksand, and a lovely person had just listened very kindly to me express my fears regarding the impending doom, however the way to safety was no clearer.
A visit to the GP led to a prescription of antidepressants, and many more trips back to the GP for them to “check in” with me. After a couple of months of further deterioration my dosage was doubled, but to no avail. In November 2018 I was signed off work and left London to stay with my Mum on very short notice.
It is true that I was no longer fit for work, and I am relieved that I was signed off before my mental health affected my practice with children and their families. But after finding myself at my mum’s place in the countryside right in the centre of nowhere, instead of London, and with the increasing likelihood that I wouldn’t finish my post-qualifying year or my Masters, I struggled to see a way out of the situation I found myself in. I began self harming for the first time in years, and secretly drank my way through the alcohol in the house - it helped things feel further away.
By the time I returned to London several weeks later to “tie up loose ends” at work, my mind was full of a haze so thick I couldn’t see through it. I had decided what I wanted to do.
After picking up my antidepressants from the GP, I returned to the countryside, drinking as much as I could throughout the train journey. I remember getting home, I remember swallowing all the pills I had, but I remember very little after that. One thing I do remember is my sister crying. The next morning I woke up in hospital, saw my sister and mum looking over at me, and immediately asked them if they had had any sleep. Apparently they had not. I saw the psychiatric team in hospital, who afforded me a great deal more time than I thought I deserved, and the space to talk about where it had “all gone wrong”. They listened patiently, graciously ignored the shakes and physical tics I was experiencing as my body processed the overdose I had taken, and told me I had ever right to a life free from constant battle with myself. A change of medication was discussed, and a new prescription written later that week.
After careful thought and discussion my family and I decided to stick to the plan for me to come to the USA, where I have been for six weeks now. I’m unbelievably lucky to have a family that understand, and a situation in which I can take extended time off work without the risk of financial ruin. I’m also incredibly lucky to have a manager that believes in me, and is allowing me to take extended time off, as well as a tutor who is ensuring I can complete my Masters upon my return to work.
Now I’m trying to focus on “putting myself back together”, whatever that means. I fought so hard against myself that all I ended up doing was sinking so far into the quicksand I was almost lost. I desperately wanted to complete my graduate scheme and my Masters, and I didn’t want to take time off or give in to my own mental health needs. But it’s clear to me now that by fighting the situation in this way I unwittingly willed myself almost into oblivion. One of the most important things we can ever do is listen to our bodies and our minds, and respond according to what we hear. 2015 me might have been disappointed to hear that he ended up deferring things, but he would probably prefer to hear that, than to hear he never made it to 2019 at all.
Image by Nicholas Todd.