This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and I have been really moved by some of the personal stories people have shared about their and their loved ones’ struggles with mental health.
Usually I have been quite private about my own battles with mental health. I’m not afraid to discuss it with friends that I trust, and I recently opened up to my new boss when the topic came up at work. However, when it comes to strangers (particularly in an age of social media), it’s not something I have ever really discussed openly. The one time I tried, I had a family member tell me that if I was well enough to post about it on Facebook, there was clearly nothing wrong with me…
The stigma surrounding mental health has long been a major issue. Thanks to more coverage in the media and a number of high profile figures coming out about their mental health struggles, that stigma is reducing, but it is still one of the key issues that exacerbates the epidemic that is poor mental health.
It was only this week, after seeing so many brave people open up, that I realised my own attitude of effectively hiding my past struggles is, in fact, part of the problem.
I want to share my story, in the hope that it may encourage someone out there to feel they’re not alone, and to encourage them to share their story too.
Let’s start at the beginning.
My Dad was killed when I was 13 by a single punch. Despite what you might be thinking, though, that’s not specifically what this blog is about. Overcoming the grief was difficult, but I was strong. Aside from the immediate impact, though, it made me frightened to lose anyone else close to me.
I had some minor challenges with mental health at sixth form and university, but by the time I moved to London for my placement year, I was convinced that those days were behind me. It finally felt as though things had started to fall into place – I had a great job and lived with great people in a great city. I was intensely happy.
But it didn’t last. I’d been there for just over a month when I got the call to say my Nan, who I lived with and was my closest family member, had been diagnosed with cancer.
You know how in movies, when something really bad happens, the music stops and everything seems to go into slow motion? That’s exactly how it felt.
I tried to be strong, tried to be that same tough little thing I had been at 13, but my inner strength was crumbling. I made it to every chemotherapy session with my Nan and put on a brave face, but I barely slept or ate for weeks. I was absolutely terrified about losing another loved one and felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, I admitted to a friend that I was finding it hard coping, so they convinced me to go and seek some help.
I went to see my local GP, who prescribed antidepressants – and sleeping pills to alleviate the associated “jitteriness”. Starting the pills that night, I was totally knocked out. My housemate tried to wake me up for work the next morning and all I can remember is pointing at my phone and murmuring the name of my Office Manager before falling back into a foggy sleep.
They say the first few weeks on antidepressants can make some people feel worse, and that was certainly the case for me. I was having really vivid dreams, but not the exciting sort of dreams where you’re riding a dragon or playing at Wembley. They were real life scenarios, like dreaming I’d had a conversation with my Mum who told me she was disappointed in me, then waking up not knowing whether or not it had really happened.
As a result, I got confused and scared, and didn’t want to leave the house, but then it was the isolation that hit me. I was spiralling down and down and down and didn’t know how to cope because I’d never been so low before.
I kept it to myself, worried people would think I was mad – and worried that maybe I was!
That’s when I decided I couldn’t cope any more. On a Thursday night in December, I grabbed a notebook and a pen and, sitting on the floor by my bedroom door, I started to write goodbye letters to the people I loved. I was calm, confident in my decision, but tears fell as I wrote.
I started with my Dad, telling him I was sorry that he had to see me like this, and sorry that I couldn’t make him proud, but that I loved him and would see him soon. I wrote pages and pages, pouring my every emotion onto the paper.
Then I moved on to writing a letter to my Nan. As the pen touched the page, I couldn’t find the words, and I totally broke down. She had already lost her only child, and if I went too, she would also be losing her only grandchild. It was her that stopped me, and she didn’t even know it.
The next few weeks were some of the most difficult of my life. I locked the letters away in a box under the bed, and tried to psyche myself up to going out. I made myself eat, shower, get dressed, and go for a walk, taking things one hour at a time.
The hardest and most surreal moment of it all is still burned into my memory like a scar. It was my first day back at work, and as I walked to the Tube station, I felt paranoid, as though everyone knew what a mess my head was. But I tried to “act natural”. As I got to the platform, I saw a train approaching at speed.
In that split second, everything seemed to freeze. I knew all I had to do was take a few steps and that was it, no more pain and confusion. Instead, I stepped back, grabbed the seat behind me, and held onto it until the train had stopped.
I always think of that as the moment that everything started to turn around.
From then on, I started to rebuild from the ground up. I was more open with friends, family, and colleagues about how I was feeling. I stopped taking antidepressants. I joined a new gym. I got more involved in politics and met some great people along the way. Not long after, I was accepted onto the Conservative Parliamentary Candidates’ List.
Now, almost five years on, at age 25, I’m standing in one of the most marginal seats in the country, hoping to be the first Conservative MP ever elected in Bishop Auckland. That girl on the tube platform would never have believed it.
It has been a journey. But I started by taking it an hour at a time, then a day at a time, then a week at a time, and just kept on going.
I’m not saying it has been plain sailing. Losing my Nan back in 2015 was a major blow and I could have spiralled again, but, despite my fear, I survived thanks to a great support network, and by being open about my emotions from the outset, both to those around me and to myself.
I’m now also much more aware of my mental health, and can spot the first signs of any decline. As such, I’ve been able to develop coping mechanisms – for example, I’ve found that, for me, running is great for getting some headspace, and for helping my sleep pattern too. By being more open, and being more aware, I can say proudly that I haven’t sunk bank into the dark pit of depression since. I found the light at the end of the tunnel.
Mental health is something that affects so many of us, and I’m really pleased to see it taking a much more central role in our Government’s NHS strategy, with an ultimate aim for mental and physical health to be regarded equally. In my view, the first step is challenging the stigma, so this is me playing my part in saying I’m not ashamed of my past struggles because they have made me the determined person I am today.
If you’re reading this and feeling you may be struggling, for whatever reason, please do not suffer in silence and suffer alone. Know that there are people out there who understand. And know that, however dark the tunnel may seem, at the other end there is always a light.
Dehenna Davison Fareham