18/05/2016 11:39 BST | Updated 19/05/2017 06:12 BST

Yvonne's Story: 'Mental Health Issues Could Lead to a Future More Enhanced Than Your Past'


This Mental Health Awareness Week, Yvonne Stewart-Williams tells mental health charity SANE how mental illness needn't put an end to high ambitions. With the right people behind you, she says, anything is possible.

For Yvonne Stewart-Williams, 'coming out' is a regular part of life. She's campaigning to be the first black openly lesbian Conservative MP in the UK, and has worked as a gay rights campaigner for thirty years.

"I'm driven by my love of people and wanting to do the best by them," she says. "I want to make sure that every voice is heard. I'm gay, and many people of colour like me find that they are left especially silent."

Although Yvonne is far from silent on the causes closest to her heart, there is one aspect of her life that has at times proven particularly challenging to talk about. For over two decades, Yvonne has been living with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that left her long-term unemployed and hospitalised on several occasions.

"There's an intense amount of stigma attached to mental health conditions," she says. "These things kill, and they're conditions that erode away your self-esteem, your aspirations and your dreams. It corners people into feeling as if they can't talk about it."

When Yvonne found an opening for her dream job at a London-based homelessness charity, she had been out of work for 13 years. A dedicated mental health team ultimately guided her through the application process.

"My care coordinator briefed me on interviews, because I'd been out of the workplace for such a long time," she explains. "I didn't know even how to use a computer properly, or understand the terminology of an application form. Up until last year, they would come to my workplace, and liaise with my bosses or organise appointments with me. "

Now, Yvonne works closely with marginalised rough sleepers who often have mental health issues similar to her own. She decided to 'come out' about her condition to her teammates in the hope that it would challenge their perceptions on the link between mental health issues, capability to work and a lack of ambition.

"My team was always complimenting me for my work," she says. "Then I would go into team meetings, and they'd be talking about clients with the same diagnosis as me. They'd have no aspirations for them. I'd be always pushing a point, saying you need to inspire and motivate them. When it came to talking about myself, it was easier to say that I was a lesbian than it was to say I had a mental health condition."

Ever since then, her work colleagues have been incredibly supportive and have even approached her to talk about their own issues with mental health.

"At the end of the day, normalising it and being able to talk about it is so important," she says. "It's not a big deal, but if you don't normalise it, that's what kills. Sometimes I joke in the team meeting when someone's having a rough day. I say, 'well I've got some anti-psychotic medication that you can borrow if you want!' We have a joke out in the open, and that helps to normalise it."

Yvonne's strong belief that those with mental health conditions are capable of working and following their ambitions stems from her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia but worked up until retirement.

"She inspired me to do it," she says. "Throughout her episodes, she'd go in and out of hospital but she still kept her job. I felt that I could too, if I had the right kind of support. After a relapse, it's always the same process of my bosses talking with my care coordinator, and me being phased in through occupational therapy."

Through her own struggles, Yvonne has one clear message about success for those going through mental health issues: "You can have a life, second to none. It can be as simple a thing as having a physical condition that you manage on a daily basis. You might have mental health issues, but it's not the final death knell that it once was. It's just a door into another type of future, and it could be a future more enhanced than your past."

SANE is a UK-wide charity set up to improve the quality of life for people affected by mental illness. For non-judgemental and completely confidential support, call our helpline at 0300 304 7000, available from 6pm - 11pm every evening.