Francesca was 14 when she had her first seizure out of the blue, on a sailing holiday in France. She has multiple types of seizures, including tonic-clonic, myoclonic and absence seizures.
“When I first got epilepsy, I think I was too young to understand it properly. At first I felt there was no real impact. Eventually my seizures started getting worse and more frequent, and the side-effects of the medicines meant I was missing school. I was only making it in to school a quarter of the time, at a push. I soon started to feel the full impact of epilepsy. You are going through so much as a teenager that having this extra thing just became too much.”
Francesca’s epilepsy diagnosis as a teenager affected her education and her relationships with family and friends. It also had serious repercussions on her mental health.
“When I was 16, I was diagnosed with depression after a suicide attempt. They thought the depression was a side-effect from the medicine I take. But looking back, I think it was a mixture of that and me coming to terms with my epilepsy. This was a particularly bad period of my life. I had to leave school on my doctor’s advice. I realised that my friends just couldn’t understand my condition and it caused me to feel extremely isolated.
My mental health problems were spotted by my mother. A week before my attempt she took me to the doctors. She asked them if I was depressed but they said I was okay. At the time, I was insistent to my mum that I was okay too. I don’t think I realised how severe it was until after my suicide attempt, or that I just felt unable to talk about it. Following my attempt, I saw a psychiatrist and multiple therapists until I found one that was a good match. The doctors were insistent that I needed to find a therapist or they would consider hospitalising me.”
Francesca looks back at what might have helped her identify and deal with her depression.
“I think what would have helped me is understanding that depression sometimes comes out in very different ways. For me privately it came out as sadness, but to my family it came out in anger. If I could have recognised some signs, it would have been really helpful. I wish I’d been made more aware of the websites or phone numbers that exist, where I could have discussed my mental health issues. If there could be any support specific to epilepsy and depression symptoms, especially for patients who've been recently diagnosed or on certain medications that have depression as a possible side-effect – that would really help them and their family too.
Support groups were offered when I was diagnosed with epilepsy. But I think as a teenager you are not sure if it sounds up your street or not. Somehow introducing more informal groups, led by younger people themselves, would encourage younger people to attend. I think talking to other people who had been diagnosed would have really helped me. I know this is something that was offered, but I didn't take up this opportunity.”
Thanks to the support of her loved ones, Francesca has managed to turn a corner.
“I am now studying a masters in social and cultural theory at the University of Bristol, and regarding my mental health I am no longer on anti-depression medication.” Last year, after a bad period of seizures, she decided to try CBD to see if this would help improve her symptoms. She said it has had an “amazing impact” on her epilepsy.
Epilepsy can be scary at any age. For children and families it can be terrifying. A donation from you today could really help people like Francesca learn to live with epilepsy at a younger age. Epilepsy Action produces special kids' packs that explain epilepsy in simple, understandable terms. They cost just £3 each, so your gift could help families understand the condition and know how to go about getting help and treatment. You really would be making a life-changing difference.