Sophia’s mental health difficulties started when she was at primary school. When she lost her mum to cancer aged 13 and became a sole carer for her grandmother, things took a turn for the worse. As part of the #IAMWHOLE campaign, Sophia shares her experiences with mental health in her own words, to encourage other young people to speak out and seek help.

“I used to have huge panic attacks before I’d go to school to the point that sometimes I had to skip school. I used to get a lot of trouble from my family, teachers and peers in school about it. I got told that I was attention seeking. I got told that I just needed to ‘suck it up’ and stop being a little brat. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, looking back, it was definitely an issue.

“When I was twelve years old, I left mainstream education and I became a home-schooled student to care for my mother who was very unwell. When I was thirteen I lost my mother to cancer and I think that was when I started noticing more obviously the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“I never had any friends once I left mainstream education, I only had my grandmother and my older sister. But my sister left to go to university after my mother passed away, so I was pretty much left alone and my problems happened behind closed doors.

“Throughout those years, I kind of sunk into this really isolating, lonely place in my life. Because I was so alone, it was more depression that really took hold at that time.

“It was very all consuming, like there was no world outside of it. Nothing interested me, the things that I used to love, they just didn’t matter to me anymore. It’s not even that you feel depressed, you just don’t feel anything. It’s just kind of a disconnect between you and life.

“I didn’t realise I felt bad, because it just became so normal to feel tired all the time and not wanting to leave your bed. I mean you tend to lose that feeling of being a person.

“I also started having really bad struggles with eating disorders. I kind of slipped into anorexic eating tendencies, I struggled with exercise, bulimia, and then it kind of merged into a binge-eating disorder. I kind of jumped from one problem to another. It was coming from a place of trying to gain control of a situation where I felt like I didn’t have any.

“I would restrict my eating or I’d exercise for hours, or I’d just sit in my bed and other times I’d just eat. I’d lock myself away from the world and cry a little bit, feeling down for no real reason and then wait for the day to come and go.

“I didn’t want to talk to my grandmother because I was looking after her. She trusted me very much and I didn’t want her to worry and I knew she couldn’t really do anything about it.

“I think subconsciously I knew what I was doing was wrong and I didn’t want anyone bringing it up with me, because I’d have to actually change and I wasn’t ready for that.

“Having someone tell me I needed to stop, it just wasn’t an option to me.

“When I was about 16 years old, I’d had a really bad binge and I was still counting calories when I was binging as well, so I could see in black and white how bad my eating disorder was.

“I went up to my bathroom, away from my grandmother so she didn’t know and I couldn’t stop crying. I just totally lost the will to fight it anymore. I was so tired and weighed down from it. I remember calling my sister and just telling her that I was done with it and I needed help. I needed someone to help me because I couldn’t do it anymore.

“So I found a, I think the formal term is cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT) online, she was just in my area and she was charging like £20 a session, which if my grandmother hadn’t been supporting me financially, I wouldn’t have been able to go to. I went every single week for two-three months. It was a hard experience, but it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as fighting it had been.

“I only had one official employment before [YMCA] and that was in retail. It was an absolutely horrific experience, because it triggered my anxiety really badly. I was having panic attacks all the time and I just didn’t think I could talk to anyone there. They were very hard on me and thought I was to blame all the time. I was shouted at on the shop floor in front of customers. My anxiety was bad at the best times, but it turned into full blown panic attacks.

“When I came to YMCA Swansea, I was put on a work placement working on a young carers programme, which is obviously very close to my heart.

“I have constant support here. My manager, my co-workers, they know all about my mental health problems and they say they don’t understand it sometimes, but they do their best and it’s more than enough for me – I can work with that. My confidence has grown and I have skills and opportunities that I wouldn’t have had before.

“I’m in a place now where I can look after my own mental health and I understand it so well that I can help other people, but even though I’m in a better place now, mental health is still a part of me. Mental health isn’t just about a list of symptoms. It’s about the person and how they see the world and how they see themselves.

“But it’s important for people to know that people with mental health difficulties aren’t broken. They’re whole human beings and they’re amazing and they’re so much more than their mental health.”

Sophia now works at Swansea’s Young Carers Programme, which provides support and information for young carers aged 8-18 in Swansea. With a holistic family approach to support, every young carer and their family involved in the service receives an in-depth assessment of needs which helps inform an action plan of support that intends to build resilience towards being a young carer.