Jemma, February 6, 2019

There is a misconception that people shouldn't, or even can't, have conversations about mental health because they're not 'professionals'. No qualifications are needed to offer a vulnerable person a safe space and time to talk. - Jemma

Today, any of my friends would tell you that I am more than happy to talk about mental health openly and without shame. In fact, it's one of my favourite topics of conversation, and I think sometimes people might wish I would give it a rest. But I refuse to stop talking about it, because I know exactly how much impact a single conversation can have, and what it feels like to struggle alone in silence.

At the age of 15, I was studying for my GCSEs, like every other teenager in the country. I achieved well at school, lived in a wonderfully loving home with my parents and younger sister, and was surrounded by great friends. And then I became unwell. Depressed, anxious, and everything else that came with it. Suddenly, everything had changed, and each subsequent day felt increasingly torturous. Although, I believe people in my life suspected something was wrong, for a long time no one asked me what was going on in a way I felt able to answer.

Looking back, now aged 21, I can see that this was partly due to the fact I was terribly ashamed that I wasn't able to 'just get on with things' in the way I thought many of my peers did. I decided it was easier to say I was fine, than attempt to explain what I was feeling. After all, I had no idea what was really wrong, so how could I possibly explain it to someone else who doesn't really seem to have the time of day? One teacher demanded to know why my grades had dropped, and when I couldn't find the words, they told me I wasn't working hard enough; another told me they were sick of my excuses: they said it was "disappointing". And I wondered, if the adults in my life thought this, then what would my friends think? I heard words like 'mental', 'crazy', and 'psycho' being used in the most derogatory way in every day classroom chatter. So, I was silent, and this carried on for months.

This was until a particularly wonderful teacher changed everything with a single conversation. She invited me into her office and asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about, because I hadn't seemed quite myself. She told me there was no pressure to tell her anything, but I could talk if I wanted to and she was there to listen for as long as I needed. For the first time, I was able to tell another person about some of the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that I had been living with for months. It is hard to explain the feeling of having this weight lifted from your shoulders, but if you can imagine the relief you might feel when you catch a glimpse of a lighthouse after spending months lost in a storm at sea? Well, I don't imagine it's dissimilar to that.

This conversation was the first step on the long journey of recovery, a journey I am still on now, and probably will be to some extent for the rest of my life. It was the first step towards having an honest conversation with my parents, going to see my GP, and getting referred to CAMHS where I was able to access a psychiatrist to get an accurate diagnosis and specialist treatment. This conversation was my beacon of light in the darkest of storms, and the person who started it saved my life.

There is a misconception that people shouldn't, or even can't, have conversations about mental health because they're not 'professionals', 'counsellors' or 'therapists', but this couldn't be further from the truth.

No qualifications are needed to offer a vulnerable person a safe space and time to talk. Often the most meaningful conversations are those in everyday life, where simply a listening ear is offered: over a cup of coffee with a friend, cooking dinner with a family member, or on a lunch break at work with a colleague. When you start having these conversations, you realise that usually no advice is needed or wanted, but rather the opportunity to chat without the fear of judgement.

If you're not sure how to start a conversation, I would volunteer the words offered to me by my amazing teacher: "Is there anything you want to talk about? You haven't seemed quite yourself lately."

On Time to Talk Day 2019 (and every day after, of course!) I urge you to remember that one conversation can change a person's life, whether you realise it or not.

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