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We spoke to MQ ambassador George about his experience of anxiety and how he came to be part of a new anti-stigma project, Let’s Talk Mental Health.

Can you tell us a bit about your personal experience of mental illness?

I’d always had anxiety as a young person, even in primary school. However, throughout my time at secondary school, it seemed to dissipate. I had a good friendship group, was achieving well and always busy. At the end of school, we decided to attend a festival to celebrate, and very ignorantly we decided to experiment with drugs. I didn’t enjoy the experience. Three weeks later, I started feeling incredibly hot, with tunnel vision and my heart racing. I thought I was going to die. It turns out I was having a panic attack, but I thought it was the drug still in my system.

After a week of suffering from daily panic attacks and severe heightened anxiety, I decided along with my parents that it was time to seek help. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder, panic attacks and OCD – which developed because I became so paranoid that everything I touched had drug traces on it. This resulted in me washing my hands 50-100 times per day.

I severely deteriorated in a short space of time. The anxiety worsened, the panic attacks became more frequent and I started experiencing intrusive suicidal thoughts. My recovery took about 3 years.

Have you found ways to cope with this?

Throughout my recovery period, I saw both a Psychiatrist and a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who taught me different coping mechanisms to be able to manage my anxiety and OCD.

CBT helped me understand what it is to suffer from anxiety – I learnt that talking about what I was going through made me feel better. I don’t think you can be ‘cured’ from a mental illness, but believe you can find ways to manage it. I am now very fortunate to be equipped with the coping mechanisms to put in place when necessary.

Has your own perspective on mental health – and what it is – changed? Is there anything you’ve learned or realised?

Absolutely! When I came through my recovery, I realised there are so many young people who aren’t in the same fortunate position I was in to get the help I desperately needed. Many young people don’t have that option, and mental illness is now so common. I felt it was necessary to do something to help those people and speak about my own experience to help others.

I’ve learnt a lot through my journey, and am always broadening my knowledge of the mental health sector, which is both interesting but also saddening. Working towards a positive goal is important though, and I’m pleased I can contribute to the change.

What questions about your condition or experience do you think research could help to answer?

I think it’s important to understand what the trigger or ‘tipping’ point to what I experienced was – maybe then it could have been tackled before I got to crisis point. I’d like to see us grow this understanding for different mental illnesses of what puts people at risk. Too many people get to crisis level before understanding what they are going through.

What made you want to get involved as an MQ ambassador?

When my friend told me about MQ, it immediately sparked my interest as it’s completely different to the other charities I’m familiar with.

Being a research charity, MQ really fascinated me. I wanted to get involved with something that is studying how mental health affects our brains and how we can prevent it, because this will inform the future of care, early intervention and prevention.

I went through a terrifying experience for 3 years which I wasn’t sure I’d overcome. And I don’t want others to go through the same. Being part of the movement that is going to change that feels incredibly special.

As part of the Let’s Talk Mental Health project, you went to the Science Gallery London to speak to Dr Nuala Morse and discuss the links between museums and mental health. Were you aware that museums can have an impact on mental health and wellbeing?

I knew that spaces could have an impact on mental health and wellbeing, and I put museums under the same bracket as say, a library. Certain areas can have a hugely positive impact on our wellbeing, for example being outdoors in nature – it can feel quiet, freeing and safe. The same could be said for museums and it would be great to see them used more prominently as a safe space for people experiencing mental health difficulties.

That’s interesting – so do you think more should be done to encourage people to attend museums?

I think it’s incredibly important that the Government does more to encourage people of all ages, not just young people, to visit and spend time in museums. The fact that they have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing is a great reason to do so.

As they are not always everyone’s cup of tea, it would be great to see collaborations with museums to raise more awareness and attract different audiences through varied exhibitions. Maybe more vulnerable people with severe mental illness, could be introduced to museums using a free trial membership to see how it impacts them, hopefully in a positive way.

You can see George’s chat for #LetsTalkMentalHealthII with Nuala Morse here.

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