It’s World Mental Health Day and earlier this year we heard from our Director of Finance, Victoria Searby, about her very frank battle with her own mental health.
Today our Director of People and Organisational Development, Zahra Leggatt, spoke to us about her experiences in the hope that it will inspire others going through a similar journey and show them that they are not alone.
In Zahra’s own words…
“I feel that mental health is still taboo, like we’re OK to acknowledge other people’s Mental health, but not our own. Over the last 30 years, I’ve had a number of episodes of depression and stress and, whilst I’ve always felt quite happy to talk about them, it’s only really in the last few years that I’ve developed useful coping strategies and realised the importance of us normalising problems. Everybody’s journey is different and we need to respect that.
“My first experience of my own mental health issues was when I was 19, in my second year at University, burning the candle at both ends! I frequently experienced low moods and friends told me that I was angry and snappy. I went home at Christmas simply exhausted and saw my GP who diagnosed depression and prescribed me with some anti-depressants. It was in the early 90s and made me feel dreadful, so I started to reduce the dose and was off them three months later. I vowed never to go on them again, my experience had been that bad.
“I wanted to stay strong…”
“So, I sought counselling, which was quite uncomfortable for me, which was when I acknowledged that I’d not grieved the loss of my mum, when I was 12. She was in and out of hospital and hospices during her five-year battle and as an only child, I got used to just ‘getting on with it’. I think, after her funeral, I cried once a year until my first ‘breakdown’ seven years later. I had little support other than my Dad, and I wanted to stay strong and not get upset in front of him.
“After university, I started working in residential childcare – caring for some really traumatised children in intense situations and without any formal training. I found it really easy to empathise with them, but I had no mechanisms or opportunities to reflect on my practice or process their emotions for myself. Combined with long shifts and little support, I became burned out, which again led to depression. I became trained in using counselling skills and found that really helped my own counselling sessions become more positive and I could recognise between effective and ineffective counsellors.
“At first, it was difficult for me to recognise my depression and stress until it was quite bad. I’ve since learnt the importance of self-care, resilience and self-awareness. I’ve often had fairly stressful jobs but learnt (the hard way!) not to take that home with me. I now use that self-care and, less frequently, counselling really effectively through some pretty serious work-related stress. I’ve gone into counselling feeling ‘holistically low’ but during that process have made some life-changing decisions, though person-centred counselling. Being kind to myself to see a way out of a situation and tough times that made me unhappy was essential to my wellbeing.
“The issues were still there…”
“But it never truly goes away. Four years ago, I had a really bad episode of depression. Work was tough and I was parenting my daughters, one of whom was having health problems of her own, alone. My self-help mechanisms weren’t working any more. I took counselling but had a revelation that my own stubbornness to avoid medication was perhaps no longer helpful. My GP put me on a very low dose of anti-depressants and within a week I felt better, stronger and coping was easier. The issues were still there, but manageable and the respite that gave me felt amazing.
“Thank goodness I did, because within two months I had been made redundant and we went into lockdown. I’m not sure how bad things would have got if I hadn’t already started to recover. Interestingly, things continued to get worse for my daughter and can still be tough, but the knowledge that I had another coping mechanism in my toolkit helped me.
“Take myself out of difficult situations…”
“It’s true what they say, ‘It’s OK not to be OK’, and it’s important to seek support but I realised that the only person who could take responsibility for my happiness and mental wellbeing is me. I needed to take myself out of difficult situations and relationships and use the support, like employers’ Employee Assessment Programme (EAP), which is open to us in DHU through Westfield Health I’ve accessed counselling through work funded schemes on five occasions and met some of the best counsellors I’ve ever worked with.
"When it comes to talking about my mental health, I hope it makes others feel able to discuss their own. For me, the worst thing would be to feel judged as not being ‘capable’ or ‘strong’ but it’s the opposite. I feel pretty strong because of my mental health, not in spite of it – people are surprised that I’ve had struggles, because that’s not their perception of me and that is thanks to my resilience. Taking about it and asking for help is a strength, strength you need to understand yourself and get the help you need."