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How to help someone with an "invisible illness" at school

Alfie, 17, shares his experience of coping with ME/CFS at school and shares his tips for how you can support someone with an "invisible illness".

Being a student is challenging at the best of times and having any illness makes a tough gig even tougher. This is especially the case when your illness is "invisible".  I was at the tail-end of my time at secondary school when I was diagnosed with ME/CFS – a neurological condition which affects my nerves, joints, energy levels and, sometimes, memory. When I was diagnosed, my teachers did a few things which made the world of difference for my mental health. Now I’m at college, my lecturers also understand these things which help me to manage the condition:

Everyone's experiences are different

Just because two people in a class might both have ME, or anxiety, or dyslexia, doesn't mean that they are going to have the same experiences and struggle with the same things. So please don’t treat them like they do. I'm not the same as Jack, who's not the same as Jill. If you take the time to understand what our individual needs are, I promise you we'll get on better and achieve better things.

Mentors and tutors

Having someone to turn to, who I actually get on with, and who actually wants to listen is really important. For those who have invisible illnesses but are able to go to school or college mostly full-time, I think it's super important to have someone that is prepared to help you through and, as far as is possible, to be able to understand how you're feeling and why you do what you do. On a down day, being able to have a 'real' conversation with a teacher who seems like they can make all the time in the world for you can sometimes do more than any medication can.

Having someone to turn to, who I actually get on with, and who actually wants to listen is really important.

I don't want to talk about it

This might seem like it goes against the above, but some people - like me - don't want their health to be the topic of all conversation. Unless you’re my mentor or we get on really well, I might not want to talk to you about my condition. That's nothing against you as a person - please don't think it is. Instead, I just don't want to have to re-live every bad symptom to be able to fully explain what's going on. And, oh, by the way, if you are going to ask, don't do it in front of the class. I promise you that can only end badly.

I'm the same person I was before the diagnosis

I was diagnosed in the final few months of Year 11. Some of my teachers had been teaching me for three or more years. I haven't morphed into some new person because of my condition. Some things might be more challenging, and I might have to make changes, but I still enjoy the same things I did before and have the same interests. If we used to talk about the latest Marvel film, chances are I still want to now. I'm trying to carry on as 'normally' as possible; please do the same.

Some things might be more challenging, and I might have to make changes, but I still enjoy the same things I did before and have the same interests.

It might seem like it's impossible to get right. I promise you it isn't. It's challenging for you and it's challenging for me. But, if we work together, it will be possible to get a good relationship and to make school enjoyable. Well, as enjoyable as school can be…

Author: Alfie, 17

If you are struggling with your mental health and need some support, have a look at our find help page.

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