Emma shares her story for World Mental Health Day

10 October 2019, Sydney – The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘Do you see what I see?’, with the aim to:

  • Challenge negative perceptions of mental health.
  • Encourage people to shine a positive light on mental health.
  • Make a way for people to seek the support they need.

At batyr, we want to amplify the voices of young people in order to smash mental health stigma and increase help-seeking rates in Australia. It has been proven that sharing lived experience stories is the most effective way to change negative perceptions of mental health.

Emma shares her mental health journey and talks about what World Mental Health Day means to her.

My name is Emma. I work full-time at a university, I love exercising and going to the beach, and I’ve struggled with anxiety and disordered eating since I was 16. 

My struggle with mental ill-health began when I was in year 11. 

I had always been self-conscious about my weight, but, when the prospect of having a boyfriend came along, I thought I needed to lose weight, fast. 

That coupled with the social pressures of looking a certain way meant that my eating and exercise habits became unhealthy. My friends caught on pretty quickly, as did my family. As I got more stuck into my unhealthy habits, I started feeling overwhelming amounts of anxiety and, as a result, started having regular panic attacks. The intertwining of my disordered eating with my anxiety meant I fell into a cycle I couldn’t get out of, and I started to drown. 

I started struggling to study, to maintain relationships and to continue to function without leaving the room to have an anxiety attack in the bathroom. When I left high school I was relieved and thought that my anxiety would be over. However when I started university the year after, I realised this wasn’t the case at all. I would have panic attacks in nearly every class I attended, and starting to dread showing up. My eating disorder was still there, fuelling my insecurities and relentlessly spurring my anxiety on. It wasn’t until halfway through my second year of uni when I decided I’d had enough of feeling out of control of my own emotions. I tried going to headspace and my university counsellor, but both had a really long waitlist. I eventually found myself in the hands of a final-year psychology student who guided me through the intricate thoughts of my anxiety every week. As I started having less and less panic attacks and my anxiety had somewhat subdued, I noticed my disordered eating was also improving and my relationship with food and exercise became a lot healthier. After a year of counselling, my counsellor moved out of the psychology clinic and told me she thought I had made huge improvements.I could attend class, get on a train or hang out with friends without stressing about an imminent panic attack and I felt like I was equipped with some realistic methods to manage my anxiety. 

It’s been nearly 3 years since I finished up counselling, and I know it’s a really useful thing for me to go back to if I feel like I need it. Luckily, I’ve since developed a really strong support network and am no longer ashamed or embarrassed about my mental health journey. I know it’s okay to have crappy days where I feel really anxious or not great about my body image, because I also know that I have resilience and the ability to seek help without shame if I need it.  I struggled with crippling anxiety for years, and it was awful. And I have no intention of going through that again without the help of professional support. 

Did stigma prevent you from reaching out for support?

The stigma surrounding mental ill-health definitely held me back from seeking help in both the early and developed stages of my anxiety and disordered eating. For starters, no one else I knew was seeing a counsellor. It seemed like something so far out of my comfort zone and what I was used to, I didn’t want to be associated with it. I don’t think I even realised that until I started seeing a counsellor, and she asked me why it had taken me so long to reach out. I had to think about it hard, because once I was going through therapy it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. You would see a doctor for your physical health, so why wouldn’t you see one for your mental health? I also didn’t realise the role that the media was playing in the stigmatisation of mental ill-health, and being active on social media I was exposed to this stigmatising rhetoric a lot. I had been suffering from anxiety and disordered eating for over 2 years before I did anything about it, and I could never figure out why. It wasn’t like I actively thought therapy was a bad thing, I just didn’t think I was the kind of person who needed it. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counsellor and subsequently did the Being Herd workshop that I realised mental ill-health doesn’t discriminate, and the people you least expect can be struggling. This was a huge step in breaking down that stigma, and I’ve continued to chip away at it since.

What do you wish someone knew about what you were going through?

I wish someone knew how it felt for me needing to either leave a situation or not want to do something because I was petrified of having a panic attack in that situation. I started to have anxiety about having anxiety! It would have been really good to have someone empathise with my situation and say, “Oh yeah, by the way, I know exactly how you feel – the same thing happens to me.” Looking back and knowing what I do now, a lot of people around me were experiencing varying degrees of a similar thing. It’s just none of us said anything because we were afraid of being perceived differently by each other. I wish my tutors at uni knew what I was going through and were understanding of me suddenly getting up to leave the room in a hurry. I wish my friends knew that catching public transport was a big deal for me and I would worry about having a panic attack on it every day. I wish my parents knew that when I lashed out at them, it was because I was anxious and not angry. My friends and family were great at being supportive, but I didn’t feel like anyone truly understood.

Tell us about a moment or conversation you had that ‘shone a light’ on the challenges you were facing and encouraged you to reach out. What was that moment like?

My mum was the first person to try and get me to see a counsellor, and at first I really resented her for it. But when she took me along to headspace for a one-off session, I cried my eyes out. When I went home, I realised I felt better unloading my anxieties on to someone who didn’t know anything about me. It was Mum telling me she was worried about me that really flipped the switch. I could see the genuine concern on her face and I know she just wanted me to feel better and to be happy again. She would do little things like fetch me tea when I was studying or tell my Dad off when he was criticising me for “being a mess” and telling me to “just relax” because “I worry too much”. I think it was in that moment, when my Mum told me she was genuinely concerned for my wellbeing, that encouraged me to reach out. She knows I’m independent, so when she steps in I know there’s something serious going on. Also because my mum is a nurse, I’ve always taken her health advice seriously and I think she has a big influence over me. I will always listen to her above anyone else, and I’m lucky I have her to always look out for my best interests.

How do you challenge misconceptions about mental health and encourage positive conversations? 

Since finishing up counselling in 2017, I’ve been really vocal about my mental health on social media and among my friends. It’s important to me that people know all sides of me, and that although I’m perceived as someone who is “on top of everything”, it really hasn’t been (and continues to not be) easy. I think challenging those perceptions of perfection and letting people know that I’m human with real feelings is essential if I want to get any kind of message across. I am also completely transparent about my experience with counselling because I think that’s one of the biggest barriers for young people in improving their mental health. The stigma attached to seeing a counsellor is still very real, and I try to be as positive and open as possible in the hope that others reach out if they need to. I know this has helped a few of my friends to reach out themselves, which has been incredible. By encouraging positive conversations of mental health, my hope is that people know I’m always here to listen and they feel confident enough to seek help if they need it.

What is your pledge for World Mental Health Day?

My pledge for World Mental Health Day is to take more time for myself. Although I’m very aware of what self-care works best for me, I find it hard to prioritise it over other things. I’m a super social person which is great and I love catching up with friends, that in itself is a form of self-care for me. But, I find it very hard to say no so I often find myself with barely any alone time. One of my favourite things to do is to sit down in my bed with a big bowl of pasta and watch 10 episodes of Netflix in a row, yet I don’t do it often at all. The romanticisation of being busy, especially in my age group and in 2019, is so powerful that I misconstrue my own self-care for laziness. I don’t want to be seen as “lazy” and “antisocial” for wanting to be by myself, even though I know rationally this isn’t the case at all and the people I care about want me to slow it down sometimes too. This is something I’m aware of, and I’m trying to break down that stigma of “being lazy” for my own sake. That being said, I’m naturally a social person and seeing friends regularly is another form of self-care. It’s hitting that sweet spot between socialising and “me time” that I’m trying to hit. 

If this story has brought up strong feelings for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.