Meet your Mental Health First Aiders

Steff Monk discusses her own personal story…

Many of you will know Steff from her role in our Communications team here.

As well as her work keeping everyone informed across the CCG over the past three years, she has also taken an active role within the Staff Partnership Group and been instrumental in introducing a number of initiatives to improve working life.

This includes putting herself forward to train as a Mental Health First Aider – and as with many of her colleagues she has herself a very personal reason for doing that.

And while she is naturally quite a reserved, private, person Steff believes it is hugely important to tell her own story about coping with a mental health problem.

Steff, who lives in Burnham and is due to be married next month, explains she has suffered from anxiety throughout most of her life, but within the last five years it has also started to affect her at work.

Then, in her previous job, she began to experience the symptoms of burnout as the strain of doing the work of two people, after a colleague left, started to take its toll.

“I have always had really high standards, and expectations of myself, and so I just kept going, as the work still needed to be done and people were relying on me.

“But as a perfectionist, when I was realising I couldn’t do all of that to the best of my ability, despite working ridiculous hours, I started to burnout.

“I felt very emotional and tearful all the time, although I wasn’t sure why, and then I think I started to snap at people a bit, which is not like me.”

Steff admits she could only juggle these feelings for so long and then a friend asked her, twice, how she was feeling.

“I’m sure I definitely said ‘oh I’m fine’ when she first asked me because that’s the instinctive reaction.

“But when she asked me again I broke down and she insisted I go home to rest.

“At that point I spoke to my mum and she said she thought I was suffering severe stress/burnout.”

With hindsight, Steff says she should have had a period of time off work and sought help, but after a day she returned to her desk.

The situation eased, with a bit more support brought in.

“The penny dropped really and I started to push back a bit and worked my hours.

“But about a year later, I got made redundant.”

Unfortunately that terrible experience, and losing her job, left its mark and despite successfully taking up a post at the CCG, her confidence had taken a major knock and began to impact her mental health.

Steff began to have debilitating panic attacks brought on by her anxieties.

“It definitely affected my confidence more than I thought. I thought I wasn’t good enough and I was now in a new job and I felt I had to prove myself.

“But even after the blip in the previous job, when it had got a bit better afterwards, I had never really sorted it out.”

Steff says no-one one would have realised she was struggling.

“I was like a swan, looking like nothing was wrong on the surface, but underneath just paddling away like crazy.”

The panic attacks began with palpitations and a tightening in her chest.

“You do think ‘am I having a heart attack’ because of how your chest tightens, you get sweaty palms, shortness of breath and feel like you might pass out.

“The scariest part was not knowing when they might happen.

“It was not always specific so I had a fear then that it might happen in the middle of a meeting or driving to and from work.

“I felt very isolated because I felt like I was the only person it was happening to and that nobody else would understand,” she says.

At its height, Steff plucked up the courage and made the decision to seek professional help, finding a local counsellor and beginning regular one-to-one sessions.

Having tried to deal with it alone, she eventually made the decision to tell her line managers who have, and continue to give her, a huge amount of support.

“It was hard to talk about it though, I did see it as a weakness and I didn’t want to be judged.

“Having therapy made me realise I had to deal with it. At the time I didn’t know what was happening to me, which was scary and frustrating, but I knew I couldn’t deal with it on my own.”

Despite no longer having regular sessions with her counsellor, Steff says she gave her a number of coping strategies to use.

“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not even some of my close family, but talking to someone you don’t know is much easier.

“Which is why I think the Mental Health First Aider scheme is so important and because of my own experience, I wanted to help if I could.”

She says the biggest thing she has taken from her experience is the need to deal with major events in your life – to avoid them manifesting and affecting your mental health.

Her counsellor said she needed a better work/life balance, not exceeding work hours where possible, taking regular breaks and making sure she slept and ate well.

“I do a lot of running, which helps clear your mind, and regular HIIT (high impact interval training) sessions too which really help relieve stress.”

Steff hopes her own story will help others seek help instead of suffering in silence, adding being part of the mental health first aiders group itself has been a huge source of support.

“I don’t want other people to be like me and suffer in silence. Taking that first step to reach out and get help is really scary, but you’ve got nothing to lose and things will only get better as a result,” adds Steff.

Along with her fellow first aiders, Anita Root, Emma Harnett, Jacquie Clements, Sarah Gascoigne and Naomi Money, Steff completed a two day training course earlier this year.

You can email any of them, at any time, regardless of which department you work in.

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