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How School Stress Led to My Schizoaffective Disorder Diagnosis

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

GCSEs (important school exams taken at age 16 in the UK) will always be a stressful time for anyone sitting them, but what happens when you can’t stand the place your education is based at? Everyone else is going through the same exam stress and hatred of school, so why do I seem to be coping with the pressure worse? Is it because I’m weaker? Is it because I’m less resilient? Or is there something else going on? These were the questions I was asking myself just before the year of my GCSEs began — when the pressure from school was becoming extreme.

Sitting in class, I began to see things no one else could, such as blood dripping down walls. This wasn’t a new experience for me, as I had been experiencing visual hallucinations outside of school for quite some time prior to this, but the thing that made it stand out to me is the fact I only see the blood when I’m in school. Outside of school, I see anything from centipede-type creatures crawling over people’s shoulders and arms reaching out at me from behind trees, to seeing inanimate objects moving and patterns morphing in front of me. But these are the hallucinations I see at any given place, whereas I only see the blood on the walls at school. This was a red light for me, and I knew I had to speak to my therapist about it.

But to begin with, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to think much of it, as I felt I’d just be begging for help when I didn’t actually need it. It was only when I was sitting in my room in late March after being home from school all day (I was home alone, as both my parents were out at work), that I realized I needed immediate help. I had been crying for hours, and I was convinced something was trying to grab hold of me from all directions. I had been trying to revise for my exams but had given up after experiencing a panic attack induced by the school-related stress. The voices were loud and intrusive, telling me to scratch numbers into my door and to inflict harm on myself and others. I just didn’t feel real — I felt like I was a static existence, isolated from the world. I felt like time was standing still in my room, and I was just watching life go on out of my window. My mood had plummeted, and so had my mindset. I attempted suicide. Obviously, it didn’t work, and I remember waking up to complete silence from the voices. They had left me be after trying to do as they said — after trying to end my life. That was the pivotal moment of this year that made me realize I needed help.

By this time, I had already been visited by the psychosis team on account of my auditory hallucinations (in my case, hearing voices) and state of dissociation, so I wasn’t new to experiencing things only I could sense. But the fact that school pressure began to influence the visual hallucinations and dark mindset terrified me, seeing as I couldn’t do anything to get anyway from that particular environment, as, of course, I was entering the year of my GCSEs. So what could I do?

The first thing I had to do was speak openly to my therapist and psychiatrist about what was going on because, at that time, I hadn’t been officially diagnosed with this particular problem. I’d been noticing abnormalities, but I’d buried them under the idea they’re just a product of stress. And honestly, I wasn’t all that wrong.

Earlier this year, on May 17, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a middle-ground between psychotic and mood disorder symptoms, which in my case is depression, hallucinations and recurring paranoia. The paranoia doesn’t come and go, but rather fluctuates in intensity. My main definitive paranoid characteristic is feeling like I’m being watched, but talking therapy has helped to rationalize that feeling.

After being told I have this disorder, my initial reaction was to cry. But then I caught myself and realized this was actually the first step in the road to recovery. I had been completely open about it with my medical team, and they gave me a diagnosis that would allow them to give me appropriate therapy. I am currently attending weekly talking and art therapy, alongside being prescribed two medications for helping with hallucinations. Previously, I had been on an antipsychotic to target the hallucinations and mood, but it wasn’t helping as much as these new medications are. This is why I felt it was so important to have had the courage to speak to my psychiatrist about things — because he could help me in a way no talking therapy ever could.

I’m still on other mood and anxiety medications, but they didn’t do anything for the psychotic side of my brain. That is why I’m so relieved to be able to look back and say, despite being terrified of talking about these problems or being seen as “just another kid with needs,” I still asked for help.

And what I can’t express enough is the importance of asking for help when it’s needed. Even if you don’t feel like you need help, or aren’t even worthy of help, please just ask for it. There will always be professionals, or even just friends or family members, who will gladly help you. This applies to any time of your life, but especially in times of immense stress, such as when you’re taking your exams. I was told stress has a massive influence on one’s mental state (which is pretty obvious), but I didn’t know it could get to the point of causing hallucinations and regular periods of dissociation. That’s why I see blood on the walls at school — because I associate school with extreme stress. That doesn’t just go for schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia, but for any mental disorder or mental illness. Things like stress, sadness and trauma all contribute to an ill mind, both in the short term and long term.

What I’m really trying to say is you have to look after yourself and ask for help when you need it. The stress of things like exams cannot be removed because it’s an unavoidable event that is inevitably coupled with immense stress, but you can definitely help yourself by trying to remove as much of that stress as you can — by facing the things that are hurting you and getting treatment for them. It is not shameful to ask for help; if anything, it shows bravery and consciousness.

I’m still struggling with this condition, and I’m still doing my GCSEs. But the journey’s been made much easier by telling my medical team about my difficulties, and getting the right help for it.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Photo by Vadim Fomenok on Unsplash