We are Emma and Sophie and two years ago we bumped into each other while we were out for dinner. We had been really good friends in the past but had fallen out of touch over the last few years. We had never meant to lose touch but we had both been scared that too much time had gone by to reconnect.
Unknown to us, so much had happened since we last saw each other. The main thing that we discovered was that we had both been through a lot of trauma that had affected our mental health. As anyone who has suffered from mental health difficulties, such as depression or anxiety knows, these can make it very hard to keep up with friendships and relationships. Depression can tell us that we are not worthy of someone else’s company. Anxiety can make it impossible to leave the house.
After we bumped into each other, we agreed to meet up for a catch up, and wow was there a lot to catch up on! We talked about hospitals, mental, as well as physical illness, grief and lots more. But that first conversation was life changing for both of us. We understood what it was like to have been through some big life stuff and listened to each other without judgment.
We didn’t have this conversation to be ‘dramatic’, or to ‘make a scene’. We were talking because everyone needs a friend they can confide in. What we didn’t realise is that not everyone is as well versed as we are in having this conversation, in checking in with how someone is really doing. The people at the table next to us were leaning in listening to our conversation in horror and fascination! They seemed scared of hearing people talking about loss, trauma and mental illness openly. They didn’t even pretend not to be listening. We knew because we could see the looks on their faces and their thinly disguised whispers to each other. At first I did think I was imagining it but I asked Emma and she noticed it too!
Since that first day, we have met up regularly over tea and cake. Every time we have discussed our mental health we have experienced this same reaction, so much so that we were starting to wonder if we should say something, to ask what the people next to us were thinking. The last time we met was slightly different though. This time we overheard a conversation about a friend who was apparently not acting the way someone with depression and anxiety should act. Emma was getting quite triggered about this conversation and was wondering whether she should actually say something to them, in order to educate their misconceptions. She didn’t in the end, but they could see that we were dithering on our way out, hopefully wondering what it was they might have said.
Should we have said anything to any of these strangers at the next table? We don’t know. But do you know what? Neither of us would have minded if even one of them leant over and asked what we were talking about, instead of so obviously listening in. Neither of us is ashamed of our experiences and we would have welcomed the opportunity to help someone to consider their conceptions of mental illness. What would you do?
We have since decided that despite the interest, or perhaps because of it, our talks have been so therapeutic that we are now using our experiences to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues. We set about working on an idea which combines mental health and fashion, by creating clothing and accessories, with a positive message about mental health. Our aim is to start these difficult conversations and make it OK to talk. This has been hugely successful through our market stall, where we listen and share mental health stories, really opening the conversation with people from all ages and backgrounds.
This has shown us that using our skills and personal experiences are the best way to help address the stigma surrounding mental health. After all, fashion is for everyone, just like mental health.