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How a mental health crisis pushed me to do what I do today

How a mental health crisis pushed me to do what I do today

Where do you start after a title like that? “At the beginning”, I hear you say, but where exactly is ‘the beginning’ when you’re referring to a lifelong journey?


For me, I think the beginning is the point where I got ‘ill’ in my early twenties (I’m 40 now!). I’ve put “ill” in quotations because it’s how I often refer to it… but, what I really mean is the 3 month period where the depression and anxiety, that I had been mismanaging for years, overwhelmed me and I became incapable of going about my normal life.

A couple of years prior, I had just left the family home to study Product Design BSc at the University of Huddersfield. Somewhat predictably, I was enjoying the party lifestyle, going out too much, not eating well, not sleeping enough or at the right times. Standard university student stuff really. I felt OK though - I felt part of a community of people who were all doing the same thing and I took strength from that. The fun of it all and the sense of “finding my people” meant I moved deeper and deeper into a very unhealthy lifestyle. It’s easy in hindsight to see what I was heading for but when you’re in the thick of it at 19… you really don’t see it. I felt good about myself and was busy enough socially that none of what used to bring me down had space in my head.

The issue? I was a very anxious person. I over thought and worried about stuff other people didn’t and had done for as long as I could remember. During those first couple of years at University I became totally swept up in a new version of myself. I wanted to leave behind the worried anxious little boy who lost his dad when he was 7 years old. All the worries I had about what losing Dad to cancer meant for me and my health mattered so much less when I was away from home. Somehow, just the change of location seemed to have allowed me to quieten those intrusive thoughts.

Things changed in my third year at University. During that summer, all of my new friends left to go home for the summer. I would normally have done the same but I had secured a work placement that started immediately. And so I stayed.


Suddenly I was alone.


I didn’t do anything to help myself feel better - I didn’t know that I needed to take action - or what that action might be.


I was alone for the first time in my entire life. I didn’t have people around to distract me from how I felt. Nobody to party with or laugh with. Just me and my backlog of worries. That summer was one of the longest of my entire life. I hated it so much that every week felt like it was a month. It sounds dramatic, but I could feel a dark cloud drawing over me and I had no idea what to do to stop it. Getting up in the morning became harder. Falling asleep at night became nearly impossible. My work placement was an hour and a half commute on the M1 and my car was pure garbage. I was working in a windowless office in a job I wasn’t really sure how to do. I was earning just about enough to pay my rent and bills and get food - nothing left afterwards and so I started to also get into debt on a credit card. The only contact I had with my previous support network of friends was on the phone (calls!) - and they were all busy with their summers at home. It was lonely and painful and all I wanted was for it to be over and for everyone to come back. I didn’t do anything to help myself feel better - I didn’t know that I needed to take action - or what that action might be. I had so little self care knowledge or skills; so I just endured. Slipping a little further each day into what ultimately would become the biggest hole of my life.


September finally arrived -but it did not bring the sudden relief I had been hanging on for.


I didn’t feel the same. I felt resentful and sad that everyone went back to student life and I was working full time. Somehow, I felt even more lonely. It felt like I had been cut out of the thing that had been making me so much happier before. So I tried to do both. I tried to still stay up till all hours talking and partying - and then get up at 6am to drive for an hour and a half on the M1, in the dark, to a job I was finding increasingly wasn’t for me. I would get home just as everyone was going out and so I had to choose between going with them or staying at home alone. I felt too sad and angry to be on my own and so I went with them. The problem of course was that it now didn’t feel fun - all the joy I used to get from being social had drained away. Instead I was enduring again - and this time with no light at the end of the tunnel.

I was depressed. I didn’t know it at that moment but I’m sure to everyone reading this it’s blatantly obvious. I just thought depression was something that happened to other people.


Then one weekend I had my first ever panic attack.


It was Friday night and we were all sitting in the living room of our shared house. We were relaxing and having a few drinks. I was having a fair few drinks. Enough that it made me feel sick. Very sick. I felt an abrupt feeling of dread rush through me - like something much more terrible than just being a bit drunk and feeling sick was happening. I didn’t know what it was but I was certain of it. I went up to the bathroom and was sick. The dread got worse. I could feel my own heart beating and there was a ringing in my ears. I sat down on the toilet as my now frantic breathing was making me dizzy. I was sick again - this time in the bath. I stood up to try and clean it up but the room span and I fell.

The sound brought a friend up to the bathroom and the rest of the evening was lost to the aftermath of what had happened. I cried - a lot. I was scared and thought that I had ‘broken’ myself by burning the candle at both ends. My friends were incredible but you could see they felt as confused as I was about what was happening. Eventually, I fell asleep from exhaustion.


I thought he wasn’t listening and that such simple things couldn’t possibly help me to get back on track.

What followed was a very long and slow journey of self discovery. I went off work sick and struggled to even leave the house for simple errands. I got good support from the University and NHS but I was not an easy patient. The doctor I had at the time was excellent - he diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Acute Clinical Depression. He suggested all the right things - talk therapy, meditation, breathing, exercise, diet… you name it he tried to get me to do it. But I didn’t. I thought he wasn’t listening and that such simple things couldn’t possibly help me to get back on track. I eventually started antidepressants but they just evened things out - made me feel ‘less’. Admittedly, they made me feel less sad but they also made me feel less of everything. I was on them for 4 years and eventually, the only thing that got me healthy was all of the lifestyle changes the GP had suggested in the first place.


So - what does this have to do with who I am and what I do now? Well, it made me realise something important. I never understood what it meant to be mentally healthy. I had never been taught what that looked like and the things that could affect it. I grew up with the idea that being ‘strong’ mentally was synonymous with ‘good’ - and that ‘strong’ meant not allowing my feelings to get in the way of what I was doing. I was shown in school what a healthy diet and regular exercise could do for my heart and waist but not for my brain. I can’t blame my teachers for that - it was the 90’s and mental health was still a taboo subject - but the fact remains that I was given very few tools to help myself once things started to slip. I missed red flags in my own behaviour that are obvious to me now and I did all the wrong things in order to feel better.


We can do better than this.


To really have an impact on the mental fitness of our young people we need a culture shift. One where mental health is given the same importance and space in the curriculum as physical health.


Over the years, schools have become much better at raising awareness around mental health but in too many instances it is tokenistic and sporadic. The topic of mental health is relegated to catch all curriculums and yearly events of recognition. An add-on to what is really important. The mental fitness of students is only addressed once it has already slipped to a dangerous place - and then by services that are over stretched and under funded.

To really have an impact on the mental fitness of our young people we need a culture shift. One where mental health is given the same importance and space in the curriculum as physical health. Physical Education should just become Wellness. Science lessons should delve into the proven benefits of various lifestyles on the body and mind. Children should be taught from a young age skills that allow them to spot when they or others are struggling and how to help in a meaningful and sustainable way.

If I had been given the skills I now have in these areas - I might never have become ‘ill’.

I have taken action on this realisation. I looked for a way to start putting my ideas into action. I became a teacher and a pastoral leader - looking for opportunities along the way to champion mental health. I moved into senior leadership but found that I still wasn’t able to affect anything further than the school gate. The pandemic brought a realisation that to really make a difference I needed to do something that would raise both awareness and funds to support these ideas. I created Luma³ - found investment from a source that had the same goals as me and now we’re working together to put these ideas into action.


If this story has resonated with you then what are you doing to take action? Real change won’t come from one place - or even 100 places. It needs everyone. We must move together to change how the world thinks about wellness. I’m starting in schools… where will you take action?

Originally posted on LinkedIn for World Mental Health day 2022 -

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