With a high-flying job in recruitment, Sarah Mitchell was used to working in stressful situations.
She enjoyed the perks that came with the job, including a salary that allowed her to enjoy many of life’s little luxuries.
But when she turned up for work one morning, she had no idea it was all about to come crumbling down around her.
Pin-pointing what triggered her nervous breakdown isn’t easy. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, Sarah can see she’d been free-falling for around a year.
At the time she’d been unable to spot the signs – but in the aftermath she’s been left surprised and disappointed by the lack of understanding there is for those who suffer from mental health problems.
As a 23-year-old woman with what looked like the world at her feet, no-one suspected that Sarah, from Gosport, was struggling to cope.
Now she’s prepared to open up about her own experience in a bid to shed light on the still-taboo subject of mental health.
‘My grandmother had died the year before and I think that was the catalyst that sent me off the rails,’ she explains.
‘Looking back, I went through a chaotic phase for about a year and then I completely crashed. Enough was enough. I was like a computer receiving too many programmes. I had to reboot my system.’
She adds: ‘It all happened overnight. I was quite stressed at work, I’d just started in a new team. I got that foreboding sense that something was happening. It was just going to be one of those days.
‘I opened my e-mails and had an anxiety attack at my desk. I didn’t really know what was going on.’
Frozen with fear, Sarah had just experienced her first panic attack but it wasn’t to be her last.
After being sent home from work, she saw a doctor who promptly signed her off for a week. But she continued to answer e-mails and work from home, while fielding questions from her employer about when she was going to be coming back.
Yet when she did return, she soon found herself unable to cope again.
‘I just couldn’t face it,’ she admits. ‘I got to the point where I had a complete breakdown. I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t go to the shops. I was captive in my room.
‘I would go to the doctors but get really panicky. They signed me off for two weeks but I was told there was a massive waiting list for therapy. It was four months to see a psychologist and six months for therapy.
‘I had work on my back saying “Are you feeling any better? When do you think you’re coming back?”
‘I tried to force myself back into work but I was the elephant in the room. I’ve always been a very open person but no-one wanted to talk to me.
‘At the time it was very frightening. It’s quite a difficult thing to get your head around.’
Her 2009 breakdown saw Sarah miss around six months of work and she eventually decided there was no way she could go back to the career she’d once enjoyed.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Sarah handed her notice in and vowed that she was going to grasp the opportunity she’d been given to change her life.
‘As soon as I left, that pressure lifted off my shoulders and I could focus on what I wanted. I needed to get better.’
Today she says she’s happier than she’s ever been and on top of her bipolar.
But her own experience has left her determined to raise awareness about mental health in general.
Always a keen writer, Sarah started her own blog and found the feedback from readers humbling.
And when she decided she wanted to do more, Sarah contacted the area’s MPs and met up with Portsmouth North Tory Penny Mordaunt, who told her of various initiatives going on in the House of Commons.
Sarah now hopes to work with Penny in the future and also plans to offer talks about mental health to colleges, universities and senior schools.
‘There’s a big gap for young people with any sort of mental health problem,’ explains Sarah, now 26.
‘There’s no support. I was put into a therapy group with four people in their forties and in a way they were like “What problems can you have in comparison to ours?”.
‘We were all in different stages of our lives. I remember thinking at the time that there needed to be more support for young people and a lot of people have said the same.
‘You do get the “Get over it attitude” when you’re young but you can’t just get over it. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.’
She adds: ‘I’m really lucky. I wouldn’t change what happened. At the time I didn’t see that there was something better on the other side. Now I’m very assured in myself as a person. I’m in a great relationship and I’ve got a job that I really love doing. Not a lot of people can say that.
‘I’m in a much better place now.’
SHINING A LIGHT
In June the House of Commons held a wide-ranging debate on mental health that was seen by many as an opportunity to shine a light on the problem.
An estimated one in four people in the UK have suffered from mental health problems at some point in their lives.
And a number of MPs, including Labour’s Kevan Jones and Tory Charles Walker, revealed their own battles with depression and stress.
Health minister Paul Burstow announced that the government would support a private member’s bill by MP Gavin Barwell which would remove laws which discriminate against people who have mental health problems.
Now working for herself as a freelance writer and social media manager, Sarah Mitchell watched the debate unfold and sent out tweets throughout.
She believes the debate helped raise awareness about the issues but says more must be done to lift the stigma attached to mental health.
‘I’m just a normal person,’ she adds.
‘It does happen to anybody. Everyone is normal, it’s just everyone is different and you need to appreciate those differences.’
Check out Sarah’s blog at generalgubbins.co.uk