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“If I could talk to my old self, I’d say mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of”

In February 2015 I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. For months I had experienced symptoms – I was having panic attacks but didn’t know what they were, which made things a lot worse. I was drinking heavily and struggling to fulfil my duties as a teacher, not marking my students’ work or sticking to deadlines. I wasn’t in the mood to leave the house or do anything. But because I didn’t know much about mental health I couldn’t put into words what was happening to tell anyone. I felt trapped. 

One day after school I broke down in tears and couldn’t stop crying. I went to see the Head of HR, who advised me to go and see a doctor. I explained my situation to the doctor – the lack of sleep and concentration, the panic attacks, anger outbursts for no apparent reason, and feeling very emotional all the time. He told me to take time off work and come back in 2 weeks.

In my next visit he asked me a list of questions and diagnosed me with depression. The diagnosis made sense, but I still didn’t understand what mental illness meant – what I knew of it, from TV or hearing people speak about it, was very negative. It made me feel ashamed, like there was something wrong with me. Because of that I didn’t tell anyone for a long time.

I was put on sick leave until October and prescribed antidepressants. The doctor told me they would make my emotions go down before they went up. All I could think was, how can it get worse? It was hard to get my head around. 

'My confidence and self-esteem were so low'

My son would go to school and come home, but he didn’t realise I wasn’t going to work. I eventually told my best friend a couple of months later, then my mum. I was afraid of embarrassing them, but both of them were positive. A lot of friends in the beginning saw changes in my behaviour but didn’t act on them – instead they stayed clear and we eventually grew apart.

That October I resigned from school because my confidence and self-esteem were so low. I didn’t think I’d be able to go back into a classroom and teach the way I used to. I also didn’t want the other teachers to look at me differently or think I couldn’t do my job anymore. Resigning felt like the only way out.

Some serious goal-setting

When I was first diagnosed I had been advised to go to the gym to help manage my depression. I started to do that, but after a few months it began to get boring, so I set myself a goal. That goal was to compete in a bodybuilding competition. Bodybuilding is a sport where you don’t have to rely on anyone else and you can see the changes happening in front of you. It also helped me with my nutrition, which I saw as a positive. I entered a competition, and actually won it – and from then on it continued.

After some time I decided to share what I’d learned with my local community. I created a company, Focus On Creating Your Ultimate Self (F.O.C.U.S) CIC, which encourages people to focus on themselves to find the positives in their life. I also began to work with young people in looked-after care as their fitness and personal development mentor. I’m still educating, but in a new way. 

Andrea competing in a bodybuilding competitionAndrea competing in the UKBFF British Championships, 2017

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of 

Although I know I’m a lot better than I was, I still have my dark times. But whereas before I’d have my dark days and weeks, now I just have dark moments. I know what the trigger points are and I know how to react to them, which is really important. The friends and family I have around me are very supportive and I’m glad they’re there.

If I could talk to my old self, I’d say mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. As a nation we’ll always tell someone we’re okay if they ask how we are. I’ve learned that I can say, “I’m not okay – I’m not having a good day today”. The more people talk, the more we can understand mental illness. I’m from a Caribbean community and mental health was never spoken about at home – so how are young people supposed to understand?

What research means to me

Research means we can identify exactly what happens to a person when they have a mental illness. I’m really interested in the work MQ is doing to address the mental health of children in looked-after care – I’ve seen first-hand how these young people get overlooked. Many of these children go through so much at such a young age.

I hope that, with research, people will be able to better understand the needs of people facing mental illness, and empathise with what they’re going through. I also hope that, in the future, more research is conducted on why fitness is beneficial for young people’s mental health, not just studies looking into exercise and older people’s mental health. 

My diagnosis has definitely changed my life - everything that’s happened has been a result of what I’ve gone through. In 2015 I never thought I’d be able to work with young people again – and if you’d told me I’d have my own business and be an international body builder I would have laughed at you! I would have said, “I can’t achieve those things, because look what’s happened to me”.

In the next few years, I want to help more young people in care access fitness and spread the word about how exercise, conversation and education can benefit mental health. I’m glad I can help people because of what I’ve been through – but it doesn’t define me.

Read more about F.O.C.U.S and Andrea's mentoring work here

Last updated: 7 August 2018

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