Read Emma and Thomas’ stories as they not only survive but thrive while battling mental health issues.
“I would say my struggles sort of began when I was 13 or 14,” a soft, expressive voice echoed from my laptop screen.
“I just started noticing that I was feeling sad a lot of the time, I wasn’t spending much time with my friends and just not feeling how I felt I should feel, if that makes sense.”
I was chatting to Emma Smith, a bubbly, friendly, well-spoken 20-year-old studying mental health nursing at the University of Dundee. She had just arrived home from a long nursing shift.
I nodded in empathy as she spoke, but I couldn’t imagine how hard the past seven years had been for her.
According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, with 3 in 100 people suffering from depression in any given week.
Emma is one of the many people in the UK being treated for depression, but she’s done everything within her power not to let her experiences interrupt her plans of working as a mental health nurse.
Just five years ago, however, Emma’s life looked very different.
“I just couldn’t cope with things as well as everyone else could, so I ended up first going to hospital when I was 15 in a place that was about two-and-a-half hours away from home,” she explained.
Emma stayed in hospital for around ten weeks before being discharged for a fortnight and subsequently being readmitted to a different hospital much closer to home where she remained for around six months.
During these six months, Emma received intensive therapy and support from nurses, and was able to return home for a further six months before a final three-month readmission.
Emma’s final year of secondary school was hugely affected by her mental illness. She was miles away from her friends and family, with restrictions placed on when and who she could contact.
“Obviously at that age all of my friends were at school and going to parties and organizing prom and things like that, so it was difficult,” she said.
Five years on from her last admission, however, Emma is doing better than ever.
With only six months of her degree left, she has secured herself a job in a substance misuse unit and hopes one day to work in a CAMHS inpatient ward like one she visited when she was younger.
Emma was able to flip her negative experiences around and use them as inspiration to build a life she is proud of.
“I noticed the impact that mental health nurses had on my life and how much they had helped me through a dark time and it just really made me feel like I could offer that help to someone else,” she said, smiling.
Emma believes her struggles help her to be a more empathetic and understanding mental health nurse, as she can relate to what some of the patients are going through.
“It was a bit strange at first and it definitely took some getting used to the responsibilities that I had but it is really rewarding,” she said.
“Everyone’s journeys are different and there’s never been anyone I’ve worked with who is exactly the same as me but it does make it a lot easier to do my job because I can sort of relate a bit more.”
According to the NHS, in March 2019 1,281,098 people were in contact with mental health services in the UK, 339,850 of which were aged under 19.
Emma’s experience both accessing and working for these services has encouraged her to advocate for more funding and accessibility within the mental health sector.
“Places are so underfunded that it makes it really hard to be able to deliver the support that people deserve,” she said.
“I think I can speak for everyone that’s a nurse in that you do the job because you love it, you don’t do it for the money, and it does make it really hard when because of the lack of funding it makes it harder to do your job.”
Emma was smiling an infectious smile as we said our virtual goodbyes, one that I hoped would remain for many years to come.
Around 350 miles south from Emma’s Dundee residence, in Waddington, Lincoln, a multi-award-winning keynote speaker, author and mental health advocate has had a similar journey of hardship and eventual success.
29-year-old Thomas Dunning has struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD and Anxiety since the death of his brother in 2014.
The engineering graduate faced years of mental illness, with many suicide attempts and couldn’t see a way out until he attended an event run by mental health charity “Rethink” where his life changed for good.
“At the time I was attempting to take my life multiple times a night and it was my last chance to really try and make myself feel normal and to survive,” he said.
“I met someone who has the exact diagnosis I have, and he helped build the Burj Khalifa, which is the biggest building in the world.
“From that point it didn’t limit me. I thought, if he can do it why can’t I?”
In 2018, Thomas founded his website Mental Health Runner to document his journey, share helpful resources and blog about his charity fundraiser running events.
His movement has gained huge amounts of attention and won him numerous accolades, including the Lincolnshire Active Change Award and in 2020 he published his own book with his wife entitled, Surviving the War Against Yourself.
By all standards, Thomas is a truly inspiring individual, but his journey over the past 6 years is a brilliant reflection of success in the face of mental illness.
“I would have to say that I’ve managed to turn the negative into a positive,” he said.
“I use it as a driver for all the amazing things I have been very lucky to do since then.”
“The future is looking really good.”
*Some names have been changed to protect individual’s identity.
If you are in a mental health crisis and need help, call the Samaritans on 116 123. Don’t suffer in silence.