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A year ago on 16th May 2014, I was making daily calls to the Samaritans and was coping with suicidal feelings so strong that I could barely leave the house due to the dangerously close proximity of a train station nearby where I vividly pictured the end of my life taking place. A year later, I spoke at the opening of CLASP's 'Walking out of Darkness' event before joining hundreds of others from across England to walk 10 miles to raise awareness of mental health stigma and the importance of suicide prevention.
I've struggled with my mental health for 10 years now and one of the many therapists I have seen since I was 14 told me 'You know what, I think everyone has thoughts of ending their life sometimes. Not everyone has really serious thoughts about doing it but at one point or another it crosses our mind that things would be easier if we just weren't here anymore.' I can't tell you whether this is true or not and I doubt anyone will ever be able to; not least because surveying every single person who is alive in the world is impossible but also because we can't guarantee everyone would answer honestly. Suicide isn't something we talk about and admitting we had experienced thoughts of suicide, even just in a survey would be too frightening for many people.
Except on Saturday 16th May, charity CLASP (Counselling, Life Advice and Suicide Prevention) made sure we did talk about it. I took to the stage in Bernie Gardens, London as one of 5 inspirational, yet highly ordinary people who have been touched by mental illness in their lives and are determined to speak up about it. It was one of the most empowering things I have ever done. An audience full of people united by their quest to end mental health discrimination inspired me to be brave enough to disclose what it feels like to want to end your own life to a park full of strangers.
And sharing our stories is how change starts. One story shared means somebody else feels less alone. And it means every listener understands a little bit more about mental illness.
The concept of shared stories set the tone for the whole day. Luckily a 10 mile walk means there's lot of time for conversations along the way! I was delighted to speak to a number of people walking the route who were more than willing to share their stories with me; some were supporting family members through mental health difficulties and were worried about their friends. Others had direct experience of mental illness themselves and this event was a part of their recovery and a way to show their support to the mission of ending mental health stigma. There were also a number of people who were walking in memory of loved ones who had taken their own lives and I was touched by their courage and their determination to create more conversations around suicide to prevent others from doing the same.
We were lucky enough to also be joined by some of the biggest mental health campaigners out there: Johnny Benjamin, who is one of my heroes was there. Johnny has done more to raise awareness of suicide than anyone I know with his frank honesty and compassion in the film 'Finding Mike'. Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change, the national mental health anti-stigma campaign also joined us. Sue shared some of her own experiences and said: "We need to have more conversations taking place about mental health problems to bring the issue out from the shadows and make it less of a taboo subject. The Walking out of Darkness event, as well as hundreds of other events taking place across the country, offers people a chance to join the movement and show that it's time to break the silence that surrounds mental health." There were many others who perhaps didn't get the chance to speak on stage but their sheer presence indicated that they had a story to tell and the atmosphere was uplifting and enlightening for the whole event.
Now I have been delivering workshops on mental health for years now and have spoken in front of hundreds of people of all ages and professions about my own lived experiences of mental illness. However, I have always focused on my experiences of anorexia and depression, fearing that a young woman who experienced feelings of suicide would be too much for most people to handle and I would be shunned and told to sit down and be quiet. Now I know this is not the case.
In fact, prior to Saturday's 'Walking out of Darkness' event, despite the 50+ mental health awareness workshops and 20 or so mental health awareness events I have delivered I had only ever spoken publicly about suicidal feelings for the first time a few weeks before at a Mental Health First Aid trainers' workshop. I had prepared for this session well and was confident that I could run the 'eating disorders' section blindfolded with my arms bound together but it was the first time I had ever tried to put into words what suicidal feelings are like to a room full of strangers. Perhaps it was the warm response I got there which made it possible to get up in front of hundreds more this Saturday and tell my story. Maybe in October, when I speak at MHFA England's 'Talking Schools' conference I will, for the first time, have the confidence to speak about how it felt when binge - purge anorexia coincided with extreme suicidal ideation when I was still a teenager but more importantly, how I came back from that point and how other young people can too.
A few of you reading this blog might have read my blogs before; you may notice that this is the first time I have ever openly disclosed suicidal feelings - it is a big leap of faith because I don't know what future employer might read this and what they might think of me. A few of you reading this blog were probably at the 'Walking Out of Darkness' event and I have you to thank for giving me the courage to write this - hearing your stories inspired me to tell mine and I hope to see you at the next 'Walking out of Darkness' event.
Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide is advised to contact the NHS 111 service, contact your GP, the Samaritans or your local Crisis Mental Health Team.
For more information on suicidal feelings please see NHS Choices page on suicide.