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'Just as with ADHD, autism and dyslexia, there are those who will insist that mental illnesses are an arbitrary fabrication'

It's essential that we put a name to students' mental health conditions so their problems aren't simply swept under the carpet, writes the former DfE mental health champion

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It's essential that we put a name to students' mental health conditions so their problems aren't simply swept under the carpet, writes the former DfE mental health champion

Aphantasia; have you heard of it? I hadn’t, until last week. For those not in the know, aphantasia is an inability to picture something in your mind’s eye. So, if I say to you "a burning log fire" and you immediately visualise flames in a grate, or are vividly transported back to the memory of watching a bonfire at the last fireworks night you attended, you don’t have it.

According to the experts, aphantasia is a condition affecting around two in one hundred people, so if you’re working in a school, the chances are some of your pupils will be affected by it.

Obviously, the existence of the condition has consequences for memory. If a person with aphantasia is asked what colour the wallpaper in their bedroom is, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you because they wouldn’t be able to picture it. Visualisation is crucial to understanding and recalling concepts (although according to Niel Kenmuir, who has aphantasia and was interviewed by the BBC last year, it doesn’t impede his ability to remember facts).

The most perturbing thing about aphantasia, however, is that most people who have it don’t know they have it. Although the condition has been known to scientists since 1880, it’s only recently been named and awareness of its existence is still patchy.

If you’re a child with undiagnosed aphantasia, the chances are you just think you’re a bit stupid. Your reports probably say something like, "Could try harder". This was, lest we forget, the experience of thousands of people who had undetected dyslexia at school.

This week, the NSPCC reported record numbers of children calling their helplines to discuss anxiety. Cue countless discussions asking why it’s so much more difficult for children to exist in society in 2016. Is it media scaremongering on immigration and brexit? Too much choice? Lack of community? Academic pressure? Social media?

These conversations are as necessary as they are inevitable. And I do believe there is truth in all of the above suggestions if we’re looking for reasons for spiralling anxiety in under 21s.

Yet I also believe part of the reason is that children know what anxiety is, now. They know what it feels like and that it has a name, so they are able to report suffering from it in a way that previous generations could not. And, perhaps controversially, I think this can only be a good thing.

We are all trapped in our own brain, so inevitably it's difficult to imagine how vastly different it might be if you resided in someone else’s.

But recognising and naming conditions which impact the way we think isn’t "making excuses", it helps us to understand. There is nothing worse than thinking you just struggle to engage in activities that come easily to other people or to know you are trying your hardest and have people insist that you aren’t.

I’ve never really struggled academically, but having what I now know was an anxiety disorder throughout my childhood sometimes made things difficult for me socially. As a child I was always described as "sensitive" because I would dwell on things I’d got wrong, or I’d assume everything was my fault.

In secondary school, I found it difficult to make friends because I was "moody" and crowds and loud music made me feel panicked, which ruled out parties.

I can still be sullen, prone to emotional self-flagellation and panicked in crowds, but since getting an anxiety diagnosis (in my thirties), I am at least able to explain to people what is going on in my head and why.

Reading up on the topic has allowed me to understand the process, to try and "catch" worries before they become all-consuming and to develop coping mechanisms for when I have to step out of my comfort zone. So while I have always been - and probably will always be - anxious, life is better for me since I accepted that label.

I think it’s these experiences which give me a natural affinity with people who have special educational needs. Just like ADHD, autism and dyslexia, there are those who will insist that mental illnesses are an arbitrary fabrication, that they "didn’t exist in their day" and "we were just fine". That’s also why mental illness, autism and learning difficulties, while very different in their nature and scope, are so often discussed in tandem.

Perhaps the fear is that in labelling people we curtail their potential.

Yet, in my experience the opposite is true. Knowing that I have anxiety has given me freedom from the voice in my head constantly asking: "What is WRONG with you?" 

While of course it’s never okay to write people off, or to allow their diagnosis to become the entirety of their identity, sometimes labels can be a useful thing. 

Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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