Without exaggeration, I can honestly say Mental Health Mates has changed my life. I was diagnosed with depression in early 2007 and, despite trying many different treatments, it’s hung around like a bad smell every day since then. Whilst joining the group doesn’t stop me having depression, it enables me to cope and has introduced me to a brilliant range of people of all ages, backgrounds, careers and mental health conditions, all over a cup of tea and a walk through the park. Looking back, I can see that attending these walks has had the same impact as finally finding the right combination of anti-depressants or the right counsellor: it’s that light bulb moment, that sense of relief when you realise something’s fallen into place.
When we had our first meeting, on Valentine’s Day 2016, it was almost two years since I’d had a nervous breakdown and I was making a slow recovery. I’d had a lot of one-to- one therapy, but I struggled to find people in a similar position who I could relate to. The few friends who were there for me had hectic lives, and I found it difficult to summarise what I’d been up to when I did see them. How do you explain that, whilst they’ve been scoring promotions, dating, partying and going from strength to strength, you’re still miles away from being ready to work 9-5 and it’s an achievement if you get dressed in the morning?
Thankfully I found people on my level at Mental Health Mates. Yes, some of them are dating and partying and doing awesome things, but they’re also having the kind of pyjama-clad brain fog I know all too well.
In the group, our mental health conditions are just an accepted part of our lives, and we don’t let them define us. We tend to be high-functioning, ambitious and busy people; it’;s not as if we have neon signs over our heads saying ‘anxiety’ or ‘;OCD’ and you’d never guess if you passed us on the street, because we’re quite good at disguising all that inner turmoil with humour and people pleasing. Here we can remove that public façade and stop pretending everything’s rosy even when it’s not.
Saying that, Mental Health Mates isn’t a pity party or a place for competitive gloom; there isn’t a prize for the person who’s had the most stressful week. Instead, we tell it like it is, and we listen to each other without judgement. It’s also fine to hang around at the back and not say much at all.
The walking is just as important as the talking, because it forces us to exercise and get our blood pumping, but without a single gym poser in sight. I was initially terrified I’d be made to go running in the early meet-ups, as a few members of the group are keen runners, but nobody chased me round the Serpentine in Lycra.
I should point out none of us are counsellors; the group is completely relaxed and it’s not in a clinical setting. We know we’re not amongst therapists, so it takes the pressure off. If we want to talk about anti-depressants, we can, but if we want to dissect the latest TV drama then that’s fine too, particularly if it involves Tom Hiddleston or Idris Elba. On the handful of times we’ve ended up at a pub, either because it’s raining or we just fancy carrying on the conversation, there’s none of the usual social pressure to have a drink.
Equally, it’s not weird to bring along a friend or relative for moral support on a particularly tough day (God, if only you could do that in an office job…). Everyone is welcome and you don’t have to have a mental health condition to join the group; you could be a carer or friend of a sufferer who just needs advice, distraction and a walk.
If you’re in two minds about coming along to a future meet-up, I’d urge you to take a chance and see what it’s like. I am proud to call these people friends, but we’re not an exclusive clique, so please try and join us if you can. You never know – this could be the light bulb moment you need.