Mia Arundel is in a good place in her life. After passing her GCSEs and A-levels with top grades, the 20-year-old student is in her third year of a Wild Animal Biology degree at the Royal Veterinary College. She lives with her parents Jo and Martin in St Albans, Herts and is in a happy new relationship with her girlfriend. One day she hopes to work in conservation.
"I just want to save the planet, that’s not much to ask, is it?" laughs Mia.
Confident, intelligent and positive, it’s hard to believe that Mia has been on a terrifying rollercoaster of mental illness for the last decade. Diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (previously multiple personality disorder) at the age of 15, she has self-harmed, lashed out at family members, put in a psychiatric unit and even arrested. It has, in her own words, "been hell".
Now, on Mental Health Awareness Day (Oct 10) Mia is speaking out. As an ambassador for Youth Talk, a charity offering free, confidential counselling for people aged 13-25 in her local area, she hopes to raise awareness of the mental health crisis affecting young people.
"What I went through should not have happened and things could have been very different if I’d known about things like Youth Talk," she says. "Just sharing my story reminds people how important mental health is and how – even if you feel you’ve reached the end of the world – there is hope."
Mia was 10 when she started becoming angry and crying for no apparent reason. Visits to her GP and even referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) were no help.
"By the age of eleven I started hearing two voices in my head," she says. "They were male, adult voices that would argue over each other whenever I was stressed. One was called Y and would be very supportive, telling me I was going to be ok. But the other, called X, would tell me life was not worth living. I was self-aware enough to realise the voices weren’t real, that they were just in my head, but they were very distracting. By Year 8, X was telling me to self-harm and I started to cut myself."
Her worried parents tried the GP and CAMHS again and by the age of 13, she had been prescribed medication to control her extreme high and low moods. But her brain was now playing host to a multitude of different characters (alters).
"As well as X and Y, there was A, Cupid, Black Widow, Aggressor and Rosie – all different ages and personalities," says Mia. "By the age of 15, I was having ‘dissociative episodes’ where one of the alters could push forward into my brain and control my body. It would last for an hour or two and sometimes I’d be aware it was happening and other times I wouldn’t have any recollection. One time I had an episode at home and chased my sister up the stairs with a large dog bone which sounds funny, but it was crazy. Another time, I left the house and my mum had to call the police to bring me back. Whenever I came round from an episode my first question would be: ‘Did I hurt anyone?’"
A month before her 16th birthday, Mia had an episode at her school which ended up with her being excluded.
"I marched into a classroom and barricaded a teacher in a cupboard and tried to electrify the door handle with wires," she says, "I had no control over what I was doing. I couldn’t even speak. The police arrived and I was put in handcuffs and taken to the station. But as soon as I’d come out of the episode, the police officers could see I wasn’t a dangerous person, I was simply ill and they let me go.
"But my parents realised I needed more help. A month later, on the day after my 16th birthday I was admitted to a local psychiatric unit. It was the worst night of my life."
However, it proved to be a crucial turning point. A consultant at the unit admitted Mia as a day patient. She could sleep in her own bed at home but come for therapy and counselling every day.
"It saved my life," she says. "I had art therapy and occupational therapy and suddenly, the anxiety and voices started to melt away. I ended up attending school in their education unit and even did my GCSEs there and then was offered a place in a local sixth form.
"I was fortunate because mum and dad continued to pay for private art therapy which I realise isn’t possible for everyone, but I’m so grateful".
While helpful, therapy has also brought up painful memories. Mia has realised that her problems may stem from being sexually assaulted by a local man when she was seven years old.
"I’d pushed the incident out of my memory and we think my brain may have been protecting me," she says. "I’m still frightened to go out on my own because this man is still living in the area. I still have wobbly days and I’m still on medication but I’m much more forgiving and accepting of my alters. Now I simply want to help other young people who may be suffering but don’t know where to turn."
Watch: Facebook defends itself over mental health impact on teens