Brave Southwold mental health activist Sarah Barrett speaks out about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse
- Credit: Nick Butcher
For much of her life, Sarah Barrett has lived with a secret she thought she would never feel able to reveal.
But today, the brave 19-year-old mental health activist waives her right to anonymity and speaks out openly about how she is a survivor of child sexual abuse – to encourage others not to suffer in silence.
The word 'survivor' is an important one to Sarah, whose family does not use the word 'victim' because, as her mother Cath Pickles says: 'It puts the power back to the abuser.'
Surviving is an apt description for how the City College Norwich student – who won last year's Stars of Norfolk and Waveney Awards for her campaign to fight the stigma of mental health – has coped with the trauma.
After the attack, Sarah was not even sure whether what had happened was acceptable behaviour.
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It was only when a sex education lesson was taught when she was at school that she realised it was plainly wrong.
'Whenever I thought about it, it would make me feel sick,' she explained.
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'I felt confused and embarrassed. All that was going through my head was: 'Do I tell my mum?''
Although she always thought her family would believe her, she said: 'I didn't know how anyone was going to react.
'I thought people might not believe me or say it was made up.'
The result was that Sarah kept everything hidden for years, although she did often say to her parents: 'I've got a secret that I'll never tell you.'
The frustration she felt at not being able to speak out often led her to being angry at home and in school.
She attended art therapy sessions but no-one could work out what had happened, although her family knew there was something seriously wrong.
Eventually, Sarah told a close friend and her worst fears sadly became true.
Sarah was bullied relentlessly after her disclosure, particularly on social media. In streams of comments on Facebook she was branded a liar and attention seeker, even though police concluded a crime had been committed. However, no charges were ever brought.
At this stage Sarah was self-harming and was diagnosed with PTSD but said: 'Not only was I struggling with my mental illness, I was also being reminded of it over and over every single day because people were bullying me.
'I felt like I had nothing to live for. I felt numb.
'The bullying continued but no-one could've hated me more than myself.'
Against this backdrop, Sarah regrettably took the first of many overdoses.
She began to experience dissociative features, where the body feels disconnected from the mind.
After several overdose attempts, Sarah was hospitalised at her own request.While the treatment she received in hospital helped to save her life, it other ways it added to her difficulties.
She was sent 206 miles away from her Southwold home to Southampton - the nearest place she could get treatment, causing additional separation anxiety because she was so far away from home.
Yet despite everything, Sarah is today fighting back.
As part of her extended project qualification (EPQ) at City College Norwich, she has set up a campaigning website to raise awareness about mental health.
She has also joined the Victim's Forum set up by the Labour MP Keir Starmer, designed to call for improvements in government crime policy.
While she today would encourage survivors of sexual assault to tell someone, she knows from personal experience how hard that is.
'I would tell them to do it but that doesn't mean they can,' she said.
'I would've if I could've, but I just couldn't.'
For those that don't feel able to tell someone in person, she encourages people to write it down if they find it easier.
Ultimately though, it takes courage to speak out – but Sarah hopes her story shows others that while you can never change the past, you can be a survivor.
Challenges of social media
Sarah Barrett's case also reveals the dark side of social media, where much of the bullying of her took place.
'I tried to ignore it,' she said.
'When I was at school I could brush it off but when it was something you could read over and over again, that was the worst.'
Today, several years on from the bullying, schools have put much stricter controls in place to monitor young people's usage.
However mother Cath Pickles said: 'However much you believe you're protecting your child, you can't protect them 100 per cent of the time.
'The best thing you can do to protect your child is empower them.
'Empower your child to make sure they know, from a very early age, what is and isn't okay.'
While Mrs Pickles believes there are 'enormous positives to social media', she believes it is best to limit young people's access until the age of 16.
Mental health campaign
Sarah Barrett has campaigned on mental health issues as part of her college course in Norwich.
The charity GeeWhizz has recently given her £1,000 to develop her campaign further.
'I want to raise awareness and give people a voice,' she explained.
'It's not a small problem - it's a big, big, big problem and people are dying because of it.
'However people don't know enough about it, which is why education is needed. The more people that know about it,
'People are scared of the unknown. Why are people scared of the dark? It's because they don't know what's there.
'That's what mental health is like to people who don't understand - it's like they're in the dark.'
Sarah's mother Cath Pickles added: 'If we see someone in physical distress, we help. If we see someone with mental health problems, we run away. We should all be looking out for each other.'
Where to get help
To see Sarah's website, visit https://fightthestigmablog.wordpress.com/
Alternatively you can visit Sarah's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/AliceFightTheStigma
Sarah is also writing a regular column for The EDP and the Lowestoft and Southwold Journal about mental health issues.
Those who feel they need support with a mental health issue should contact their GP immediately. Those in immediate danger should call 999.
Support is also available by calling the Samaritans, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 116 123 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
For support after a sexual assault, call the free, 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999.
Voluntary organisations such as Women's Aid, Victim Support, The Survivors Trust or
Survivors UK, for male victims of sexual assault, can also help.
Alternatively, call the police on 101 or dial 999 in an emergency.