SOMEONE’S IN YOUR CORNER
For WH’S first-ever Strong Mind profile series last year, women spoke openly about their most intense moments of poor mental health: how it hit, how they manage and what they’ve learned. Your response made it clear that these stories needed to be told. But even the most resilient of people don’t build themselves up from breaking point single-handedly. We all need backup. And yet, could you recognise a crisis on the face of a friend or verbalise your own need for help? There isn’t a social script for supporting someone through a difficult time. So, over the page, 11 women open up about their mental health journey alongside the person whose empathy, intervention or listening ear changed the course of their mental wellbeing – and indeed their life – forever. At WH, we will never sugarcoat mental health, so you might find some of these accounts (which cover domestic abuse and self-harm) hard to read. The stories are all different, but they share a common message: seeking help, accepting it and – if you’re in the position to do so – offering it can change lives. In some instances, even save them. This is what support really looks like.
Asha Iqbal grew up in a strict Pakistani Muslim household in West Yorkshire. When the pressure from her parents to conform became too much, she began to self-harm, until an intervention by her new friend Rabia Rizwan changed everything
Asha: I never set out to hurt myself. But the older I got, the more I became aware that the life my parents wished for me didn’t line up with the one I wanted. Hearing my father discuss my marriage as being ‘next’ while on a trip to Pakistan, aged 17, my anxiety grew. I needed an outlet. At first, I’d scratch at my scalp until it bled, then I started taking to my arms with razor blades. Doing something my parents disapproved of – like reading media studies at the local university – made their comments more frequent. As the end of my first year grew closer, I became terrified of being taken to Pakistan to meet potential husbands, and the self-harm escalated. I kept my arms covered to hide my cuts from family and friends – including Rabia, the bolshy girl I’d grown particularly close to.
Rabia: ‘Mate, you’re not okay.’ Sometimes, you need to find a way to let your friend know that you know. This was mine. When I’d first met Asha months earlier, she was a bubbly life-and-soul type. We bonded instantly. So, when just a few months later she started ignoring my texts and phone calls, I knew something was wrong. She agreed to meet at a mutual friend’s house. She was just so… quiet. I decided to go with the direct approach. ‘Look, I know there’s something bothering you. You don’t have to tell me, but if you want someone to listen, I’m here.’ She sat there awkwardly, fiddling with her sleeve. Then I saw the marks on her arms. Through tears, she told me how they’d come to be there.
Asha: It was the first time I’d shown my scars to anyone. I half expected her to shout at me. Instead, she listened, then told me calmly
– but forcefully – that something had to change. It was the first time she was there for me in a significant way, but it turned out to be the first of many. Over our decade of friendship, it’s Rabia I’ve turned to when things at home have become difficult. Earlier this year, the situation became so untenable that I no longer felt safe. Leaving my parents’ home for good was hard; but one call to my best friend and she arranged everything for me. When I met Rabia, I knew quickly that she was someone who would come to be important to me. Just how important, I could never have foreseen. Asha delivers mental health training at generationreform.org
When Rose Cartwright wrote an article about living with intrusive thoughts, she gave voice to an experience so terrifying that it remains a closely guarded secret for the majority of OCD sufferers. Three thousand miles away in New York, Aaron Harvey read her words on his laptop, and the penny dropped
Rose: In 2013, I pitched a piece to The Guardian about my experience of OCD – specifically, the intrusive thoughts
I’d been living with since the age of 15. I wrote about the graphic images and repetitive doubts that would appear in my mind, telling me I was a paedophile; how this evolved in my late teens, when I’d obsessively imagine people naked, and compulsively question why; how my brain would convince me having the thought was as good as doing the act. It was a source of shame – but since I knew others were struggling in secret, I wanted to air it in public. Aaron: Rose’s article saved my life. Living inside my mind felt like walking through a nightmare, through the eyes of a villain. She put my feelings into words. I’d spent 20 years hiding these thoughts, convinced I was almost a psychopath. I’d selfmedicate with alcohol before delivering an
8am pitch to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, then I’d shut myself away in my office and break down in tears. I came across the article on a night when the thoughts threatened to overwhelm me. Rose articulated my feelings so accurately that I decided to read her account verbatim to my parents, by way of explaining my own experience. When I saw Rose was crowdfunding to turn the article into a book, I had to support. But it took another 18 months of getting myself well before I summoned the courage to email her. Rose: Suddenly, that generous donation left by a stranger on my crowdfunding page made sense! Reading that email was so surreal; it was extraordinary to find out that my words could have had such an impact. By the time we met in person, in London, I was on the other side of exposure therapy and using mindfulness techniques to try to keep my thoughts in check. It was a bizarre experience for both of us – ours is an intense connection to have when you’re strangers. Aaron told me he’d founded the Intrusive Thoughts Foundation and invited me to join its board. I left feeling grateful to have helped someone – and that, alongside Aaron, I could now help more. Aaron: That exchange felt like being seen. Now I speak about intrusive thoughts in the media and at industry summits, and doing so has become my main therapeutic source. That’s all down to Rose. She started this conversation, but through the foundation and our new, broader mental health initiative, we’re continuing it together. The TV adaptation of Rose’s memoir Pure airs on Channel 4 this year Visit Aaron and Rose’s new platform celebrating mental health change-makers, madeofmillions.com
Clare Downing thought leaving London would ease her panic attacks. It didn’t. Desperate for a solution, she took part in an Oxford University study and met Andrea Reinecke, a psychology professor who would open her mind and change her life
Clare: ‘On a scale of one to 10, how bad do you think getting into this cupboard will make you feel?’ When Dr Reinecke posed this question, every fibre of my body wanted to bolt out the door. It was 2014, and the anxiety that led me to quit my job in London and move to Wiltshire five years earlier had only become worse. My panic attacks were so intense that I couldn’t work. It was out of sheer desperation that I signed up to take part in a study looking at the effectiveness of a rapid, single-session treatment for anxiety disorders.
Andrea: My technique is a brief format of classical cognitive behavioural therapy. Evidence shows that anxiety increases in certain situations, then naturally recedes. So, when someone with an anxiety disorder avoids a certain activity in the hope of preventing a panic attack, they’re placing harmful limits on their lives unnecessarily. Clare’s attacks are rooted in panic disorder with agoraphobia. To try to deal with it, she would avoid using the London Underground or flying long-haul. To test my theory, I needed to get Clare into a situation where she would feel certain that she was about to run out of air – hence the cupboard.
Clare: I had expected questions about my childhood, like in previous therapy sessions, but with Andrea, we discussed the science behind anxiety and which parts of my brain respond when I feel threatened. I’ve always feared vocalising my emotional experience of anxiety in case it was seen as hysterical. On an intellectual level, I know that I won’t run out of oxygen and die on the Northern Line, but that’s what my mind and body believe. Andrea didn’t raise her eyebrows or cut me off when I explained this. She listened.
Andrea: Understanding the changes that take place in the brain during mental illness is important. Knowing there’s something functionally different that makes you feel this way – and that it can be altered – is empowering.
Clare: Four years on, I still have Andrea’s voice in my head as I achieve things I never thought possible, like travelling on the Tube for a night at the theatre with my husband, or catching an 11-hour flight to Japan. I’m telling myself that if I climbed inside a cupboard when it felt impossible, then
I can do this, too. Andrea is an ambassador for MQ Mental Health; mqmentalhealth.org
Charli Howard was ruled by OCD and an eating disorder for more than a decade before writing a damning Facebook post against the modelling industry she worked in. It went viral, and a mother-of-three from Bristol reached out
Charli: In October 2015, I wrote a Facebook post; not a status update, but a 400-word ‘fuck you’ to the industry that I felt had legitimised the eating disorder I’d battled for years. I wrote about how modelling had left me feeling ashamed and upset on a daily basis; that dropping down to
7st 7lb wasn’t enough, nor was putting in upwards of five hours a week at the gym. Among the hundreds of messages I received in the days and weeks that followed was an email from a woman called Jane, CEO of a charity called Anorexia & Bulimia Care. Was I doing okay? Did I want to talk? The answers were no, and yes.
Jane: My first thought when I read Charli’s Facebook post was,
‘Wow. This girl is going to change things.’ My second was, ‘She needs some support.’ As CEO of an eating disorder charity, it’s my job to care. But that’s not the only reason I went to meet with Charli that day.
Charli: In a cafe on a cold December afternoon,
Jane told me that she’d witnessed first-hand the havoc this condition can wreak, as two of her three daughters had spent long periods in hospital for anorexia. She told me how it robbed them of their personalities and left them fighting for their lives on in-patient wards. She also told me they were both now well-recovered.
Jane: The agony of watching my daughters go through this was exacerbated by the lack of understanding around the illness. Even when it nearly killed them, some medical professionals treated it like the manifestation of some extreme teenage girl vanity. Arming myself with knowledge empowered me at a time when I felt helpless; I wanted to equip Charli with that knowledge, too – and tell her that recovery is possible. Charli: Jane gave me some books she’d written about recovery. Reading her candid take on the thing I’d been grappling with for years was so refreshing that I burst into tears. I’ve since signed with an agency that supports me modelling at my size, and CBT is helping me make sense of what I’ve been through. Jane was the first person to ask me outright if I had a problem. Saying it out loud was transformative for me. Charli is an ambassador for Anorexia & Bulimia Care; anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk
In 2016, CBBC presenter Katie Thistleton moved out of a dark period of depression, but she was still struggling to make sense of the experience. When she heard Matt Haig on the radio talking about his memoir, Reasons To Stay Alive,
she bought a copy, and it changed her perspective entirely
Katie: For months, I didn’t want to live. The only reason I didn’t consider ending my own life was because I remembered how hard my cousin’s suicide three years previously had been on my family. As the depression subsided, thanks in part to medication, I convinced myself that the way to leave it behind for good was to find my ‘purpose’ – whatever that might be. But neither piano nor tennis lessons made me feel joyful or grounded. When I heard Matt speak about depression with a clarity and perceptiveness I’d never heard before, I decided to pick up a copy of his book. It hit home, like an unflinching talking-to that I hadn’t known I’d needed. Near the end, he shares two lists. The first, the things that make him feel better; the second, things that make him feel worse. It was a concept so brilliant in its simplicity that I decided to make my own. Some of our ‘worse’ things are the same: drinking too much alcohol; comparing ourselves to others online; not getting enough family time. The items on my ‘better’ list were similarly unremarkable: listening to Beyoncé, jumping into a hot shower before putting on my PJS and watching TV with my boyfriend. It’s almost embarrassing how something so obvious could change my life.
I met Matt when he came to read one of his children’s books on my CBBC show. He was a stranger, but he felt familiar because his words had cut through my confusion when I needed it the most. Matt: In the months after my book was published, I wished I’d never written it. I’m not a doctor or a Samaritan, so I struggled with the label ‘mental health ambassador’. But, almost three years on, I’ve been able to process it all and appreciate just how much it has helped people. I’m not surprised the lists at the end resonated with Katie; the worst thing about being mentally unwell is the powerlessness. Working out what to do more or less of is a simple step to reclaiming some of that lost power. The community that’s sprung up around the book heartens me, too – and I was happy to endorse Katie’s own book (which speaks directly to the mental health struggles of pre-teen girls). If I became ill for the first time right now, I don’t think I’d feel as alone. Dear Katie: Real Advice On Real Problems With Expert Tips by Katie Thistleton (£7.99, Orion) Notes On A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig (£12.99, Canongate)
Entering the public eye via Made In Chelsea, it’s no surprise that anxiety punctuated
Binky Felstead’s early twenties. Moving forward required an unlikely ally – and embracing the powerful impact of the body on the mind
Binky: I first saw a therapist when my parents divorced, and
I’ve been in and out of counselling since. My mum’s openness about her depressive episodes taught me that I had no cause to be ashamed. By the time I got together with Josh [‘JP’ Patterson, 28] in 2014,
I’d experienced anxiety attacks that would trap my breath and trigger a rolling broadcast of worst-case scenarios in my mind. I signed up for personal training sessions with Tyrone because I wanted help to overhaul my body, but I hadn’t anticipated what a difference he’d make to my mind.
Tyrone: When I met
Binky, I explained that having structure around training and nutrition would lay the foundations for change in other areas of her life, too. Our relationship developed over the next few months; she began to see her body change and her confidence grew. I’ll know straight away if Binky’s stressed, energetic or anxious – as a trainer,
I can spot the physical signs. I’ll gauge how hard to push her accordingly and then, at the end of the session, we’ll chat over coffee. Her mind, like mine, can be so scattered and worn out from overthinking, but training helps create some necessary space.
Binky: Ty was right; once I’d got my fitness and nutrition into a routine, I started treating all areas of my life with a little more care. I wanted to be able to smash my
9am workout – so, no, I probably didn’t need that extra glass of wine. But it’s more than that. Trainers become like counsellors; Ty has definitely crossed into that role when I’ve opened up to him. He’s seen every possible side of me – anger, joy, fear – when you’re training that hard, anything can happen. We’ve become so close that he was one of the first few people I told when I found out I was pregnant. Josh and I had broken up and I was in a state of utter confusion. Knowing I had him on hand to help keep my body and mind strong bolstered my faith in myself. Now that I do all the childcare for my one-year-old daughter, India, alongside work, our sessions are even more important. I’ll never put myself first again, except in those 90 minutes of training. I’d certainly seek support from a therapist if things dipped again, but right now, I’m in a good place. Anxious moments no longer run my life – I do. Discover Binky’s childfriendly fitness retreats themummytribe.co.uk
Earlier this year, WH columnist and former cover star Alice Liveing announced that she was once in an abusive relationship that left her feeling anxious and worthless. Here, she and her mother Sarah, who helped put her back together, share their story
Alice: I was 16 when
I met Charles* at a party and we were a couple within a fortnight. When he trawled through my texts, I saw this as proof that he cared for me, which was all my insecure self wanted. I clung to that feeling when he’d pick a fight, then make me sleep on his bedroom floor as punishment, and each time he was physically aggressive towards me. The heartfelt apologies and pleas for forgiveness further clouded my judgement. However terrified I was about what he was capable of, the fear of people knowing I was a victim was worse. Finally, I broke up with him. The irate texts and constant calls eventually stopped, so I was caught off guard when he jumped me one afternoon outside school and physically assaulted me.
Sarah: ‘You need to come to the school. Alice has been attacked,’ said the voice on the phone. I was heartbroken that this had happened and devastated that I hadn’t seen it coming. All I wanted was to rebuild my daughter, but in that moment, I felt powerless.
Alice: My nightmare had come true: everyone knew I was a victim.
For weeks, I had nightly panic attacks. My mum would climb into bed and sleep beside me and I remember feeling safe, supported and relieved that this was no longer my burden to shoulder alone.
Sarah: On hearing Alice’s choked-up tears, I’d rush into her room. I’d just hold her, listen to her, soothe her – grateful that now she’d let me help her.
Alice: The shame persisted, punctuated by vivid flashbacks over the coming months. Through it all, my mum provided unconditional support. While my instinct was to withdraw and not make any decisions by myself, she empowered me to choose my next steps.
She reinforced that I was worth something, that my body and mind deserved care and attention. Since I started blogging, she’s been cheering me on. My mum’s support was the foundation upon which I was able to build myself back up – and thrive. Alice is an ambassador for Women’s Aid; womensaid.org.uk
Crediting an ex for their
positive impact on your mental health? It’s not common. Yomi Adegoke isn’t sure she’d have got through the worst year of her life without her former partner, Sam Batista Morris
Yomi: In 2014, I witnessed a family member go through serious, debilitating trauma. I won’t go into specifics – it’s still too painful – but what I’m happy to share is how I moved through the depression triggered by this episode, which I couldn’t have done without my ex, Sam.
We’d broken up the night before I got the news, but I couldn’t not call him.
Sam: I’d seen Yomi upset before, but never like this. I didn’t know where ‘we’ were, but I was certain that I wanted to be there for her. I didn’t often know what to say in big family situations, let alone this one, so I didn’t say much when I arrived. I just reminded everyone to eat.
Yomi: Sam didn’t shy away from my distress. Nor did he attempt to placate me with empty assurances. He was a solid presence, determined that I wouldn’t lose my way. Amid the chaos and pain, I was offered my first proper journalism job at ITN. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t there – this was no time for careers, goals and dreams
– but Sam wouldn’t let me. Appearing as if I was functioning during my first few months at that job took everything I had.
Sam: Yomi wore this air of deep sadness and all I wanted was to tell her that everything would be okay – but I couldn’t. What I did know was that ever since I met Yomi at the University of Warwick, I’d been in awe of her drive. I knew she would do great things. She knew that I believed in her, even when she didn’t.
Yomi: Sam could see the light at the end of what felt like interminable darkness. It was a whole year later – after I’d recovered with the help of time and counselling – that I discovered we didn’t want the same things. So, amicably, we broke up for good. We’ve both moved on, but the support he showed me and my family during that time means we’ve built a bond of friendship that isn’t going anywhere. Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (£9.99, Fourth Estate)
In February 2017,
Roisín Dervish-o’kane experienced a depressive episode she couldn’t force herself to work through and her GP signed her off for six weeks. When her new manager, Nikki Osman, started months later, she dreaded discussing her ongoing mental health issues. But she did, and it changed her working life for the better
Roisín: Once Nikki joined our team, I was dreading The Conversation. I didn’t want to tell a stranger that intense anxiety had culminated in a depressive episode so debilitating I had to be signed off work; that despite managing my condition with medication and (when funds allowed) psychotherapy, some days I’m still not okay; that no matter how badly I want to come into work every day and crush it, I can’t guarantee that I will always be able to.
Nikki: After asking me for a quiet word in a meeting room, Roisín told me candidly about what she’d been through. I was relieved that she trusted me with this information, but I felt unequipped to support her in the way she needed. I went away, read as much as I could and sought out some training, but there isn’t a playbook for how to support someone.
Roisín: That first conversation is so important because, when the worst doesn’t happen, it gives you confidence to open up again. Nine months after we started working together, I had my first panic attack in ages, in the toilets at work. Admitting to having an attack, moments after you’ve had it, to your line manager, is hard. But because Nikki accepts and encourages that dialogue, I could do it.
Her response was kind, practical and quite forceful, actually. She told me to leave it at the door, go home and enjoy my weekend. And I did.
Nikki: But that dialogue has come from Roisín, too. She’s good at telling me when she’s not feeling great, and not because she has a cold, but because she doesn’t feel mentally well. We all present a certain version of ourselves at work, and talking about your mental health is like admitting to being human in an environment where you sometimes feel like you have to be superhuman. But what Roisín is doing is treating her mental health the same way she treats her physical health. I think that should be the goal for all of us.
In December 2016, Michelle Morgan, cofounder and former CEO of creative agency Livity, burned out. Facing a slew of physical and mental health challenges, her world shrank. But with simple shows of support from husband Remi Rough, she pulled through and learnt an important lesson
Michelle: ‘Can I take my wife for a coffee?’ Remi asked me softly, before helping me into my clothes and guiding me, hunched and fragile, to a cafe near our South London home. It was an act of kindness at a time when I needed it most. As an artist, his work flexibility meant he’d always shouldered the childcare for our 12-year-old daughter, Lily, and I’d been the main breadwinner. That was until I broke down at the bottom of our staircase in 2016; a violent burnout that had been months, maybe years, in the making. Later that day, my GP signed me off from my job as CEO of the agency I’d co-founded 15 years previously. I’d become used to working long hours in a highpressure environment, but trying to secure investment in the wake of the Brexit vote upped the stress, which was compounded by a painful fibroid in my womb. A month later, my GP diagnosed depression. The woman who lay in bed all day was one I didn’t recognise. I thought I should be out there earning money, and I judged myself harshly.
Remi: I never once thought, ‘This is my wife at breaking point.’ I just knew instinctively that I needed to keep things moving. Michelle was so unwell that I didn’t want her to focus on anything except getting better. I’d see to simple things, like keeping on top of doctor’s appointments and making sure she left the house – even if only to walk and chat shit. Anything to make things feel normal.
Michelle: Something I don’t think Remi realised at the time was how he’d created an environment in which it was okay for me to be broken. When frantic anxiety over my future career took hold, he didn’t try to placate me with rational arguments; when depression left me monosyllabic, he didn’t try to convince me that everything was okay. He just... let me be. It allowed me to accept that I needed to go easier on myself.
Remi: Going through this has changed our dynamic as a couple. Even when she was at her lowest, Michelle couldn’t help but worry about money and judge herself for not being out there earning it. But when I took care of everything for that period, it showed her that she didn’t need to do it all, all the time. I was proud of Michelle when she was a CEO, but I’m just as proud of her for her recovery. Michelle is founder of Pjoys – pyjamas that help make mental health an everyday topic; pjoys.co.uk
A depressive episode in 2014 darkened Denise Crossley’s life beyond recognition. Her daughter, Hannah Beecham, far away in London, wanted to help – but didn’t know how
Hannah: ‘How do you fancy walking a marathon?’ I didn’t know what I expected from Mum when I posed that question in November 2014, but I was desperate. If there was such a thing as rock bottom, she’d hit it, and living so far away I didn’t know how I could help her. So when I read about the Moonwalk, a 26.2 mile route through the streets of London by night, organised by a breast cancer charity, I signed us both up.
Now I just had to get her to agree to do it. Denise: I took Hannah’s call from my bed, where I’d spent the majority of the past five months. Signed off from my job as a teacher’s assistant, I couldn’t tell you the time or the date; I rarely left my room, let alone the house. I searched for an excuse, any excuse, not to do it. The cost? ‘All taken care of,’ she said, brightly. ‘Right,’ I replied. Then, remembering a young colleague who recently lost her battle with breast cancer, ‘I guess we’re doing it then.’ Hannah: The following weekend, Mum sent me a photo of herself decked out in leggings and walking boots. She’d left the house and interacted with a salesperson. I was absolutely stunned. Denise: With that date in the diary, I had a purpose. The big one – walking 26 miles – and the smaller one of getting out of bed, putting on my wellies and clocking up some miles. Out there, in the fields, I wasn’t ‘woman with problems’, I was just another dog walker. Hannah: Mum suddenly became hard to reach. Whenever I called, she was out walking. As the day of the race got closer, she was excited. That she made it to the starting line in London was victory enough – months earlier, she could barely bring herself to take a shower. Just the marathon to contend with now.
Denise: It was bitterly cold and my legs hurt in places I didn’t know they could hurt. As we hobbled over Chelsea Bridge and into the final mile, tears leaked from my eyes. It was only after we crossed the finishing line and stumbled into a taxi that it hit me that I’d really done it. I’ll forever be grateful to my daughter for knowing what I needed when I didn’t, and couldn’t. And since she founded RED January – an online community of people committing to exercise every day in January for their mental health – that message is reaching millions more. Registration for RED January 2019 is open redtogether.co.uk
32, writer 37, creative director ROSE CARTWRIGHT AARON HARVEY