Iona's story: Forming your identity

*Trigger warning: this story discusses suicide*

Iona talks about the challenges of being autistic and her feelings of loneliness after leaving school to go to university. Being outside your 'comfort zone' also had an effect on her mental health, but as she says in her story, "starting with small things can help". Volunteering and starting dance classes were her way of starting out on that journey.

I’m Iona and I'm 22. I live near Edinburgh and I’m studying English Literature and Creative Writing through the Open University alongside working as a mentor and consultant. I experienced an intense period of loneliness and poor mental health after leaving school.

I was diagnosed as autistic when I was 19 and I find it impossible to separate this from my loneliness. I was really depressed before I got my diagnosis.

Once I finished my National 5 exams and left school I didn’t really leave the house. It affected my mental health badly, and isolation made things worse. It can be difficult to break the cycle. I knew I needed to change things but you can’t because you feel so bad and so you leave the house less and less and end up feeling worse and things just spiral.

I think that modern society makes finding deep connections difficult too. Working, commuting, stress - it all adds up. Cities, in particular, seem designed to discourage a sense of community and to encourage feelings of isolation.

Getting my diagnosis really turned things around. It helped me to understand why I felt isolated and what I could do about it. It enabled me to think differently about how I could move in society.

Leaving school was significant too. For many young people, it can feel like there are huge external pressures and expectations at a time in your life when you’re beginning to form your identity. It can feel overwhelming and you don’t have time to find out who you are and work out what you want to do with your life. I was living with my parents at the time and they were really quite worried about me but didn’t know what to do. I felt terrible. I got to the point where I did want to end my life - I was so low and didn’t see there was any hope for change. 

 

Photo of Iona

Outside of your comfort zone

Going outside of your comfort zone is really important. It’s hard, but starting with small things can help. I decided to start volunteering and signed up for the Saltire Awards, a scheme in Scotland where you can volunteer with different charities.

Volunteering made me feel like I was contributing something meaningful and people recognised my skills and encouraged me. It really helped and eventually, I did an apprenticeship and got a job. I got to go to social events too, volunteering really did change my life in lots of ways.

I went to dance classes too and that helped to build my confidence. And I used apps like Bumble and MeetUp to find people nearby looking to build new friendships or find people with similar interests.

Have that balance

It’s important to find balance. If you are someone who likes solitude, giving yourself space for that is important as you start to build new connections and relationships. I like my own company to decompress. Being autistic means I get quite overwhelmed with sensory things and sometimes I need to have time to be alone or just have a day at home.

A lot of autistic young people end up feeling isolated. It’s a big problem within our community. If you have problems with socialising or if you’ve been bullied, it can cause people to retreat. It’s especially important for young people to have time to focus on themselves. Be your own best friend first.

As you navigate new friendships and connections, remember what you need and what you want. There have been times when I’ve had lots of acquaintances but still felt very lonely because I didn’t feel genuinely close to those people.

Waking my mind

Going to university was a turning point. Learning has woken up my mind. I’m using my brain and thinking about new ideas. I’ve had good results and feedback too, and that helps me to feel more confident.

I don’t recognise myself from back then. When I was in my late teens loneliness and depression took over. My memory of the period is patchy and I just feel like an entirely different person today.

I rarely turn opportunities down now. If something seems good I challenge myself to try it at least once. And I like to remind myself - when new things feel frightening - that things are never as bad as I think they may be! Things don’t improve overnight and it can take a long time for things to feel better. But as you try new things and meet new people, you are taking important steps. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 took place from 9 to 15 May with the theme being Loneliness. Loneliness is affecting more and more of us in the UK and has had a huge impact on our physical and mental health during the pandemic. Reducing loneliness is a major step towards a mentally healthy society.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, know that you're not alone. There are a number of organisations you can get help and support from. Visit our 'Get Help' page for more information on where to go to get mental health advice and support.

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