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Home > News and views > How debating mental health has helped me with Autism: One participant shares their story

How debating mental health has helped me with Autism: One participant shares their story

I’m Holly and I am 14 years old. So far so normal. Wrong. I have a condition called autism which makes me see the world quite differently. I am not blind, I just find social situations quite difficult and find it hard to see what people mean when they chat. Over the past five months, I have been part of a programme called Debating Mental Health which has helped me in lots of ways.

Before my first session, I had very low self-esteem and didn’t feel confident speaking up for myself. I was anxious about going along as I thought that everyone there would be cleverer, and be better communicators than me. But as soon as I got there I realised I was wrong. I felt that I could be myself and I wasn’t going to be judged. And there were lots of other people who were just like me and who I now count as friends. This is a big deal for me as I find it really hard to make friends because I don’t really know how to have a conversation and I feel really awkward around people my age.

I’ve also learnt a lot. Debating involves a format where you structure the topics you want to talk about. This has helped me at school as I find essays very hard to write. I normally answer a question in a few sentences and struggle to think of what else to say. Learning how to debate has shown me how to structure arguments and this has helped me in a lot of my subjects at school as my exam questions have a similar format.

One of my favourite things is the game where you choose a side on a certain topic and walk to opposite sides of the room depending on where you ‘stand’. You then have to explain why you chose this position. You can talk for hours on end about the topic and really get into it!

I feel much more confident in myself as I now see that I don’t have to keep quiet about my opinion on things I can say whatever I like and it won’t be silly or stupid because in debating there is no right or a wrong answer. You have no reason to feel bad about what you say.

Even though I find it hard to talk to people on an individual level, I can talk to an audience much more easily as I don’t have to make eye contact or understand when I’m supposed to speak. l go to a mainstream school with an autism unit and I give regular talks about autism to year groups and teachers so they can better understand who we are.

I have found the course very helpful in improving the format of my talks and helping me to speak as engagingly as possible. I also try and incorporate comedy and try and relate to the audience. For a younger audience, I will talk in less detail with more visual props, for an older audience I talk about how autism affects me and how they can help me. I loved getting the applause at the end of my first talk, the teachers said it was very impressive and they couldn’t have done it and it was a defining moment in my life.

Debating has opened up the opportunity to see what people really think about mental health and not just what a doctor or psychologist says. It’s good to know that I’m not alone and that other people are in the same situation and it’s OK to talk about it. I now feel I can be myself and that’s OK because at the end of the day it is OK to be different.

I would like to thank the Facebook & the ESU for picking up on the topic of mental health as it is a very important and I am glad that they have recognised this. I would also like to thank CAMHS in South London as without them I wouldn’t be the bright bubbly amazing person you see before you today!

To anyone with a mental health issue, stay strong. You are what you are and you don’t need to change for the world,  well I wouldn’t anyway.


Debating Mental Health is an ESU partnership between Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and the Anna Freud Centre and aims to establish debate clubs for young people with mental health support needs.

For more information about Debating Mental Health London, please contact programme lead Laura Tyrrell.

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