Wednesday 4 May 2016

The Power of Storytelling: Seb's Experience

Seb writes about his experiences with depression and anxiety for our Power of Storytelling campaign.

My name is Seb Baird, and I am a mental health campaigner and digital comms professional. I currently work for the national mental health campaign Time to Change; while I was a student at Oxford I founded the University’s Mind Your Head campaign. I am also a trustee and volunteer for Student Minds. My story was first published published here

What inspired you to tell your story?
I experienced depression and anxiety periodically during my degree. I was afraid for most of my first year that I was going to fail my course, and the anxiety around my studies dominated my life, making it hard to sleep, relax or have a real social life. During my second year I experienced a depressive episode, which again made it difficult to function: everything slowed down, I found it hard to work, and isolated myself away from my friends. 

As I started to tell my close friends about what I had gone through, it became clear that many of them had experienced similar things. It was obvious that being a young adult in a high-pressure environment like Oxford made us all vulnerable to mental health problems, but there was still an enormous taboo around it: none of us felt comfortable having the label of ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ attached to our public identities. I told my story to try and change that, and set up Mind Your Head to help other people to tell their stories too - to show that experiencing mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Has telling your story helped you?
Yes, in a couple of ways. Firstly, I think speaking out about your own mental health has allowed me to put it in better perspective; the more I talk about it - whether publicly or privately - the better I understand my mind and the better I get at managing my mental health. Secondly, being honest about my mental health has helped me to develop stronger relationships with the people around me. Having been honest with them about what I’m going through, I think I’m able to connect with my friends in a more genuine way.

Has telling your story helped others?
I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think it has. I remember, the day my story was first published online, an overwhelming number of people messaged me to tell me about their similar experiences. And just recently, five years after it was first published, another friend wrote to say she identified with a lot of what I went through, and was glad to hear that it wasn’t just her. In my experience, sharing my story has helped people in a similar situation to know that they are not alone, and it has helped give them permission to talk about what they’ve gone through, even if they don’t do it publicly. 

What did you find hardest about telling your story?
I don’t love the spotlight, so it was difficult at first to come to terms with the self-promotion involved in telling my story. I was worried that people might think I was attention-seeking, or bragging, for being public about my mental health problems. And maybe some people do think that! But I probably don’t want to be friends with those people, and I realised quite quickly that the positives of telling my story - giving people hope, a sense of community, and permission to talk - were more than worth any risks. 

Do you have any advice for anyone who’s thinking of sharing their story?

There are a couple of things to think about:

  • Are you ready for a lot of feedback? In my case, almost all of the responses I got were positive, or empathetic, but even those can be hard to deal with if you’re not used to being the centre of attention! 
  • Are you ready to listen to others? Speaking out about your experience will probably mean that some of your friends/network who are currently experiencing mental health problems will reach out to you for support. You should be prepared for that to happen. 
  • Are you prepared for the long-term? I shared my story online, so when you search my name the first things that come up are all about my mental health problems. I thought long and hard about that, and I’m okay with it, but you need to be aware that some of these things might never go away. 

Are you interested in getting involved in The Power of Storytelling Blog series? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch

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