Friend of the centre, Jennifer Chamberlain wrote the below piece in light of A-Level results day a couple of weeks ago. Here she shares her opinions/advice for young people who are thinking about their education, their future and their mental wellbeing.
Today, thousands of young people across the UK picked up their A Level exam results. I heard on the radio earlier that the percentage of students achieving A/A* grades has gone up on last year’s results, with more than a quarter of entries hitting the top marks. Usually, on a day like today, I watch the footage of squealing teenagers on the TV (they only show the ‘success’ stories, we usually hear from William who is off to read Medicine at Oxford) and I think of all the young people who didn’t get what they wanted and feel like failures. I think of them, mortified and heartbroken, and my own heart goes out to them. I want to hug them and tell them that this moment does not define the rest of their life.
But today is different. Today my sympathy is for the top 26.4%. Instead, I’d like to hug those young people who may be smiling less out of joy and more out of relief. I’d like to reassure the ones who didn’t sleep last night and couldn’t eat this morning because absolutely every inch of their self-esteem was riding on the letter of the alphabet etched in ink inside that envelope. I’d like to sit down and have a heart to heart with those young people who are, in the eyes of everyone – parents, teachers, employers, universities – the BEST.
Let me explain…
All of my life, I have been an achiever. In primary school, I was in the school council, I was Sandy in Grease, I did a project on Nelson Mandela and got not one, but three (!), school stamps for it. In secondary school, I got cast in leading roles in productions and recorded a CD for BBC Children in Need aged 13. In Sixth form, I became Head Girl at one of the leading Grammar schools in the country and walked out of the building nine years ago today with three A grades. Since then, I have lived and worked in Switzerland, Sri Lanka and Italy, graduated university, learnt two languages, had my writing published, backpacked across India twice and co-founded a theatre in education company.
If your eyes haven’t rolled into the back of your head by now, thank you for sticking with this. Those who know me well will know this anyway, but for those who don’t: I am not trying to boast – far from it. I know how privileged I am and I am grateful for every single opportunity I have had in my life. But in writing this, I am trying to make an important point that others might be able to relate to and find comfort in.
Again, let me explain…
Yesterday, for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be truly proud of myself. Yesterday, I successfully completed a new course – except this time I’ve been forced away from my beloved arts to try my hand at something new: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Anxiety and Depression, caused by stress-induced, work-related burnout, has torn through my life this year and stolen me from myself and the people I love. A devastating and cruel mental health condition has pulled the rug out from under, and floored me. Aged 27, being the best has finally got the better of me.
I do not feel the need to share every detail of how this has impacted my life. But there comes a point when you’re lying in your childhood bedroom, belongings in binbags around you, having given up a job you love and you are forced to ask yourself: How did I get here?
It’s been a long and scary road trying to answer that question and I am still trying to find the words. For lack of a coherent sentence, here are some of those words: pressure, expectation, passion, ambition, drive, independence, self-criticism, accomplishment, resilience, hardwork, achievement. If I really try to distil those words down to one simple thing, it’s being the best.
So the next thing you do after you’ve asked the question is you try to intellectualise it. I became some kind of pseudo-psychoanalyst, reaching into the depths of my past trying to look for explanation. Having been raised by a mum and dad who are the complete opposite of pushy parents, I know it’s not to do with upbringing. But schooling? Most definitely.
I do not want this to turn into a rant against Grammar schools. It’s not helpful, not least because this happens to people regardless of what type of school they went to or how academic they are. Poor mental health can affect anyone at any time. Overall, I enjoyed school and I thrived there. I had an academic education that was second to none, my creative talent was nurtured by a few daring, inspiring teachers and, most importantly, it was where I met my very best friends who have been with me since then and are still by my side getting me through this. It was a positive experience in many ways.
But for me, personally, and I am slowly realising that it’s the same for others like me, this sort of education, for all of its perks and positives, can be detrimental to a person’s mental health – even if that comes out years later.
Ultimately, Grammar schools, and everything they stand for, teach a fixed mindset. There is no room for mistakes (ironically how you learn best) or for giving yourself time and space to try things out. They survive and thrive on producing the most academic, most accomplished, most ‘successful’ little citizens.
I do not remember ever hearing a school assembly that taught the importance of being happy, being content or looking after yourself. I do, however, remember my well-meaning headteacher taking me to one side when I got my A Level results and whispering in my ear ‘don’t do drama’ – something I quickly, and understandably, translated to: do not follow your dreams, do what’s expected, do what’s best.
As it turns out, I did do drama – haha! But rather than just doing my degree in it and then getting a ‘proper job’, I single-handedly took it upon myself to harness my skill and passion for the arts and to try to change as many lives as I could with it. I tried to change the world…that old bleeding heart… and nothing but my best was good enough.
Of course, this is my particular field, but there are so many out there doing the same, whether they’re doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers or something else that requires emotional investment. The biggest irony, in my case, is that in fighting so hard to ensure young people could benefit from the mental release and catharsis of practicing an art, I forgot to do it myself. I stopped writing, I stopped acting, I stopped singing. Then once the passions were gone, and my self-esteem was plummeting, I stopped looking after myself altogether.
It’s a toxic mix, talent and passion. It gets you far. It gets you noticed. It makes a difference. But when you try to use your talent and passion for others, and keep none for yourself, it’s inevitable that you will run out of steam. You will burn out. And the truth is: you cannot pour from an empty cup. I cringe at the cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason.
When that happens, and you’re left with the mental collateral damage, it is beyond devastating. I read an article online recently, when I was desperately trying to make sense of it all, and this line resonated with me so profoundly: burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away.
I was reminded yesterday, by my lovely friend’s lovely mum, that sometimes a breakdown is a breakthrough. It forces you to slow down and, if necessary, stop what you’re doing altogether. When your life as you know it has fallen apart, there is no option but to reevaluate and learn some hard lessons.
I don’t want to be the best anymore, I’m done with that. I want to be happy and I want to be healthy. That is the most important thing now, and should have been all along.
So, this is the advice I would give those 17 and 18 year olds getting their results today, those high-flying, talented, clever, creative tour-de-forces: Put your health and happiness first, always. You are the ones who will change the world, but you don’t have to try to do it on your own, and mustn’t do it at the expense of yourself. You don’t always have to be the best. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t set the bar too high. It doesn’t all have to happen right now. Don’t always feel you have to say yes, it’s ok to say no. Treat yourself as an equal. Give yourself credit. Take breaks and reflect. Slow. Down.
For anyone who feels, or has ever felt, this way, there is no shame in it. It is hard to ask for help with your mental health, but it is so much harder to ask for help when you’re the last person people expect to need it. On the same day I was signed off sick from work, I got an email to tell me I was outstanding. On the surface I was shining brighter than ever, but underneath I had completed imploded. This will come as a shock to many people who know me, even some of my closest friends who, through no fault of their own, have no idea. At my first CBT session eight weeks ago, I bumped into someone I know (yay for my anxiety) and he said ‘I didn’t expect to see you here, you always seem to have it all together’. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does.
I will say it again: There is no shame in struggling with your mental health and there is no shame in asking for help with it. I never ever thought I would be in the position I found myself in, but I was and I needed support. I got that in the end, and it’s not easy but it’s working – I am getting better. I am not the high flying, successful, fast paced achiever I once was, but nor do I want to be. I want to be happy, I want to be healthy – and when you’ve had that taken away, it means absolutely everything.
– Jennifer Chamberlain