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How I Found Mental Health Support in an Unlikely Place

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One of the most difficult things I have found about having a mental health condition is the loneliness. For years, I have hidden behind a mask, behind good humor and smiles. I have always been the person to offer support and advice to others, the person who seemed to have my life together. In reality, I was breaking down behind closed doors. The difficult thing for me was knowing who to reach out to and what to say, where to start, but back in September, I found support in a way I had never expected to.

On September 27th, 2016, the mask finally slipped and I had one of the worst panic attacks I have ever experienced at work. I was upset, exhausted and embarrassed. My workplace ordered me a taxi and sent me home, but whilst I was waiting for my taxi to arrive, a colleague from the office on the floor below mine (we’ll call her K) came up to see me. She took me somewhere quiet and reminded me that this, like everything else, would pass. She gave me some self-care tips for when I got home and gave me her number. She waited with me and kept me calm enough so I could make it home without any major difficulties. After that, I took a few days off work to collect myself and evaluate what had happened.

When I got back to work, there was an email waiting for me from K – it was an invitation to dinner with her and another colleague, H. There was no pressure to attend — she had made that clear — but both K and H wanted to reach out and make sure I was OK. I accepted the invitation and a few days later we met after work and had dinner.

The experience was amazing. There were no airs and graces or boundaries. They, like me, have mental health conditions that they deal with daily. On the first dinner, we talked bluntly about our challenges, the therapies we were receiving and our past experiences. We shared wine and food and laughed and cried and by the time I got home, I felt a little lighter — that kind of post-counseling feeling when your shoulders feel a little lighter and your head is a little clearer.

This quickly became a fairly regular meeting, but more importantly than this, it became a support network open to all. We are now a group of five — me, K, H, E and J. Four of us have a mental health illness, whilst one of us is the partner to someone with mental health issues. Our meetings aren’t solely about mental health though – we talk about food, music, theater, TV, work, cats, family and home, holidays – if you can name it, we’ll discuss it.

We support each other in and out of work – we have grown to know each other in such a way that we can tell from a look if one person isn’t feeling too great. We support each other with simple words of encouragement during working hours and in-depth conversations and advice outside of work. To most of you, this might just sound like a group of friends, but to me, it offers so much more. Every dinner reservation offers me a safe space to confide in people who can fully empathize with me and the benefit of a support network inside the office, who may well spot when I need to take a break before I acknowledge it myself.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need this reinforcing to us time and time again, but it is so important to reach out and to look after each other. Our lives are busy and hectic, we all have worries and concerns, but it doesn’t take much to invite a work colleague, a fellow gym goer, a neighbor or a classmate out for coffee or lunch, and you might not know how much they need that right now.

Thinkstock photo via vadimguzhva

Originally published: July 8, 2017
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