Thursday 2nd February was #timetotalk day in the UK. Run by mental health charity, Time To Change, the purpose of the day is to raise awareness and end the stigma of talking about mental health. Mental health can make those struggling with its challenges isolated and scared to talk for fear of others reactions. Our loved ones may also feel concerned as they do not know what to say in return or how they can help us feel safe. #Timetotalk day encourages both members of the conversation to speak and listen to each other. Whether you text, call or share, every conversation means that more people are reached and more lives are changed.
To celebrate #timetotalk day I wanted to share the first real conversation I had about mental health. I hope this brief story will encourage others to talk and to listen.
When I started university I never knew if I was going to finish my degree. Not because I was unsure of whether I was studying the right course, but whether I could cope with my anxiety in a new environment far from home. As I have previous written, my anxiety first hit me at the end of my A Levels. I had been in a small school since the age of seven and my classmates knew a very particular and limited version of who I was. When I started to change I never felt as though I could talk to them about what I was feeling. I was terrified that they would not want to know me anymore, as I felt I was so different from the person they grew up with. So, quite simply, I took the option away from them. I stopped talking, I stopped turning up to events and generally disappeared from their lives. People asked at first. but eventually they stopped too due to my lack of response and I was left with no friends from my previous life. I convinced myself it was going to be ok, that I only needed to speak to my parents and my doctors about what I was going through and I could hide the rest when I started University.
The first night of freshers week I pretended I was sick so I did not have to go out. People were generally too excited to pay me much mind and I thought they would eventually consider me antisocial and leave me alone after a while. Turns out though that people actually wanted to get to know me. On the second night I tried to same thing but 18 year olds full of vodka tend not to care too much about the sniffles, so I was dragged out of the flat full of terror. I knew we weren't even leaving the campus but the idea of walking into a jammed union bar and having to pretend that every inch of me wasn't screaming, felt impossible.
Five mins into the evening I went outside for a cigarette (the only sociably acceptable reason to leave a freshers evening round of beer pong). I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to slow my breathing and calm the panic that was rising inside of me. I was generally being ignored outside the bar but then a boy from the flat over the hall from me came and stood next to me. He turned his head and said 'are you ok?' I knew that if I looked up at him, he would quickly realise that I was not, so I quietly said 'I am having a panic attack.' Without skipping a beat he said to me: 'I had one this morning.' He went on to explain that he had had an emotional breakdown the year before and was still working on his recovery. His candidness was a revelation to me. I had never heard anyone speak so honestly about their own mental health with no stigma. His bravery imbued me with the strength to tell him my own story. The relief I felt was immense. We stood outside the bar for the rest of the night talking and he was to become my closest friend throughout university.
That night taught me that speaking out is not something to be scared of. I could have lied to him and pretended that everything was fine as I always had done. By uttering those few words, I not only calmed my own mind, it allowed him to connect to another person in a way that he needed to as well. I realised the power of simply being honest and trusting that you will be heard. Of course, not every interaction can be as positive, but it is now a risk I am willing to take to join the conversation.