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MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: ‘I had been hiding something’

Jess Ward kept her mental health condition to herself for years. It wasn't anything bad but she believed that if people found out, they might think less of her.

So she kept her anxiety condition quiet and faced its daily demands on her own.

But gradually she let people close to her know her secret, which unexpectedly removed a weight from her shoulders.

Now as Mental Health Awareness Week nears later this month, Jess has felt the time was right to play her part in breaking down the stigma surrounding the condition — and, importantly, to show it's not a barrier to leading a full and productive life.

Jess, 50, who is the principal at Paraparaumu Beach School, realised she was suffering from anxiety when she was in her 20s, which a doctor confirmed a few years later.

At first only her immediate family could know as she felt a sense of embarrassment about it — even inferiority.

It was only in the past five years that she confided in close friends about it when she wondered why her anxiety should be secret, considering it was simply a chemical imbalance in her brain.

“I told them I had been hiding something from them for a long time.”

After telling her friends, and feeling their strong support, she told her school colleagues.

“I knew that the only way I could be better at helping other people was to actually be honest with myself.”

Again, she felt the support as well as a “huge sense of relief”.

“In lots of ways, sharing it has been the best medication.”

Anxiety is part of her life and is something she has strategies around to keep it in check.

She thinks ahead about various scenarios, is highly organised, and having structure to her day “helps me be really on the ball”.

“For me, having anxiety can be exhausting but being highly organised helps me have a really positive day.”

It was important not to think too far ahead, she adds, just the day ahead, not weeks away.

“On the days I feel anxious, I find it helpful to just be in the moment.

“The minute you think too far ahead, you freak yourself out.

“Worrying about stuff doesn't get you anywhere.”

Having anxiety has had its challenges but it wasn't a barrier.

“You can still achieve your ambitions, you can still lead a positive life, you can still experience success and make a difference.”

She's found yoga, listening to calming music, positive affirmations, making notes, and learning about mental health has been very helpful too.

“There's a brilliant podcast series on ABC Australia called All In The Mind. I think it normalises that so many people suffer in this way, and that you're not on your own, and there are ways you can deal with it.”

For children she recommends the book Aroha's Way — a children's guide through emotions, written by Craig Phillips.

Having anxiety hasn't been easy and medication has been needed at times to treat it.

“Again, you need to remember I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, and if the medication at that time helped, then that's what I needed to do.

“I have asthma and I take medication for that, and there's no stigma attached to that, so why should I feel judged for something that is part of my body?”

Everyone had mental health issues in their life.

“For some it's seasonal, for some it's situational like Covid-19, or for some of us it's about living with it every day.”

Her advice to others in similar situations was to “find the courage to be honest with yourself that you've got a medical condition”, followed by an openness about it with family and close friends.

“The support I got from those groups alleviated so much of the stress and perceived judgement I was feeling.”

Jess said she can manage her anxiety but can't manage other people's judgement of her condition on her own.

“I need other people to help me minimise and eliminate that stigma.”

Mental Health Awareness Week is from September 21-27.

The theme is Reimagine Wellbeing Together: He Tirohanga Anamata.

Jess said the week was a chance to build on the simple things we've been doing to look after ourselves, and to reimagine what wellbeing looks like together. — Kapiti News