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Inspiring teen Katie Graden's experience of self harming and suicidal thoughts has launched her on mental health crusade in schools

Katie Graden used to cut her arm in a cry for help but, as she tells Stephanie Bell, she has found the strength to lobby MLAs for better services for schoolchildren, written a book on her trials and wants to be a politician

Katie Graden is encouraging young people to talk
Katie Graden is encouraging young people to talk
Katie hopes to help in mental health support at Queen’s, where she’s studying
Katie receives an ‘Inspirational’ award from presenter Paulo Ross

By Stephanie Bell

It is only a few years ago that Katie Graden's anxiety was so bad that she would hide in her bedroom with a knife and cut herself in the hope of getting some relief. Suicidal thoughts and self harming completely overshadowed the Co Down girl's early to mid teens.

Now at just 19 and on her first year at Queen's University, Belfast, Katie is well on the road to recovery.

Although the acute anxiety and depression she battled was very recent, Katie has found the strength to take a stand on behalf of others and that is why she shares her own experience today to mark World Mental Health Day.

Katie, who lives in Carrowdore, has been campaigning for mental health awareness since January 2017, initially by sharing her own experience on her Facebook page 'Positivity Only' and at public speaking engagements.

She was also inspired to draft her own proposal for a student-run mental health leadership team to be implemented in every school in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt was so impressed by her idea that he invited Katie to present her proposals to an all-party group on mental health at Stormont.

A young Katie managed to persuade the MLAs to further investigate the issue of mental health in schools.

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This inspiring young woman also took part in a 297-mile walk in memory of the 297 people who took their lives in Northern Ireland in 2018 and raised over £1,000 for Action Mental Health.

She was commended for her efforts and was honoured with the well deserved Action Mental Health Inspirational Young Person of the Year award.

This year, she was also a finalist in the prestigious Pramerica Spirit of the Community Awards.

One of Ireland's largest youth recognition programmes, Pramerica aims to honour young people who are making their communities a better place to live in and who are inspiring others.

Katie has even written and published a book about her experiences - Searching for Freedom - which is available on Amazon.

The teen is certainly an inspiration and her story is one which sadly too many teens and their parents will be able to relate to.

She recalls how anxiety struck out of the blue when she started first year at grammar school.

She says: "I started taking panic attacks in class. My parents had split up some years before, but my dad had just left to go to live in England and I am still not sure if that was the trigger.

"I think I found the jump from primary school to grammar school quite difficult. I am a perfectionist and had set myself really high expectations, which I was afraid I couldn't meet.

"I would be in class and take a panic attack, my heart would be racing and I couldn't breathe and I just felt full of fear. I needed to get out of there, which was the fight or flight response kicking in, but I didn't know what I was running from."

Her worried mum took her to her GP, who prescribed her with medication to try and relieve the symptoms of her anxiety.

Even though she was a straight-A student, looking back, Katie believes the grammar school environment was not for her as she put herself under too much pressure to achieve.

Her mum even suggested moving schools and Katie did switch schools midway through her first year, but unfortunately her condition continued to spiral and unknown to her mum, she started to self harm.

Katie describes it as being in "the dark depths of despair".

"It is very difficult to explain to people," she says. "The thoughts I was having were not rational, but they were real to me.

"People's reaction is to try and help to fix you, but that can make you feel suffocated and it made me withdraw even more.

"I started cutting myself when I was in lower sixth form. I think it was during the build up to the Christmas exams. I believe that exams were a real trigger for my anxiety as I just couldn't cope with the pressure I was under.

"I would have cut my arms with a knife. That went on for a few months.

"When you are in that mindset, it is a scary place and you can't see a way out.

"It is a horrible place to be and you feel like you are trapped in a dark tunnel which you will never get out of. Even when people tell you there is light at the end of it, you can't see it.

"It's hard looking at it now from a good place, but back then, I really felt that life wasn't worth living and I was suicidal on and off for two years.

"It was just awful for my mum and I remember one day sending her a picture of my cut arm to her phone. It was the only way I felt I could reach out to her as you don't know how to talk about it."

It was when her school appointed a pupil in a new pastoral care role that Katie had her idea for a pupil leadership mental health team in all schools, which she pitched to ministers at Stormont.

She says: "I just felt it was a great idea for the school to appoint a pupil in that role, but I thought she should really have a team behind her, supporting her.

"That gave me the idea of a mental health pupil leadership team in all schools just for pupils, to have someone to go to who could signpost them to services and support.

"I remember thinking, 'What can I do about this', and I had heard of change.org and decided to put it on there. I put it up and went to sleep and when I got up in the morning, I had over 400 messages. It was unbelievable."

Katie had touched a nerve and one of the people who messaged her was local Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt.

Mike invited her to address the all- party group at Stormont in June, 2018, outlining her idea.

"Mike told me afterwards that I was the first person ever to make a presentation to the all-party group and get a round of applause," she says.

Despite the pressure she was under with her illness, Katie excelled in her exams, passing nine GCSE's, five with A stars, and three A levels.

She has been under the care of the community psychiatric team for a few years now and ongoing counselling has proved invaluable to her recovery.

She says: "Counselling has been a very long and hard process and thankfully the anxiety has eased off and I am now in recovery."

Katie is excited to be on her first year of a degree in English and Politics at Queen's and aims to join the university's mental health support team, Mind Your Mood.

She eventually wants to become a politician and specialise in the area of mental health.

"I want to either be a mental health spokesperson for a local political party or go into the civil service and work in the mental health policy department," Katie says.

"Queen's has a superb programme for students to help with mental health and I hope to get involved with that, too.

"I would also like to get more involved with Pramerica.

"I was one of the finalists in their awards this year and the other young people were amazing.

"The 2020 awards have just been launched and I would really encourage people to apply.

"For anyone who is struggling with their mental health, I would urge them to talk to someone. Everyone's life is worth living and even if you don't believe it now, you do have something to live for.

"Talk to your family or your friends. The first step to recovering from mental health is getting support and talking to someone."

The 2020 Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards is run in partnership with the National Association of Principals & Deputy Principals (NAPD) and the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI).

It aims to celebrate youth volunteers who are passionate about a range of topics, including homelessness, mental health, disabled rights, animal cruelty, caring for the young and elderly, plus many more.

Launching the awards, Naomi Hegarty, vice president, Risk Management, Pramerica Systems Ireland, said: "There is a new generation of young people who are taking a stand for what they believe in and empowering others to take positive action in areas that they are passionate about.

"There is so much amazing volunteering work going on in communities across Ireland and we want these brilliant young people to enter the awards to get the recognition they truly deserve."

The 2020 Awards are split into two categories, including the junior category, for students under the age of 16, and the senior category, for students under the age of 19.

Students must register and apply via the online system by October 24,2019.

Applications are now open at www.pramerica.ie/spirit.

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