Since writing this book, that little gathering one freezing morning in a windswept park has grown into something I could never have imagined. From small acorns grow great trees. The people who came to that initial meet-up have become amazing friends, and helped to expand Mental Health Mates from a single walk into an entire network across the country – and even abroad.
It wasn’t long after the first London meet-up that a girl called Kate got in touch to ask if she could set up something similar in Leeds. Then came a message from Natalie in Newcastle, Lauren in Southampton, Enya in Ipswich . . . on and on, the emails kept coming. It soon became clear that I was going to have to make Mental Health Mates slightly more professional. Up until then it had just been me sending out a few tweets saying I would be standing outside a cafe at such and such a time. Someone who knows about these things got in touch and offered to set us up a website and an email address. We created Twitter and Instagram accounts. Our Facebook group soon gained thousands of members. The BBC got in touch and asked to film us for the news. The producer, who had recently lost a family member to suicide, told me that the whole concept was like ‘kicking at an open door’.
The walks started to get bigger and bigger. Politicians started to show up, wanting to replicate what we were doing in their constituencies. Olivia got in touch from New York, and set one up there. We had gone stateside in under a year! Back on this side of the pond, we had started up a Mental Health Mates for new mums and one for the LGBT community. I was meeting the most incredible people who had been brave enough to get out of bed on a Sunday to go for a walk with a bunch of strangers. They did not stay strangers for long. People would leave the walks and go for lunch or coffee together; at the time of writing this book there was even a weekly pub quiz group.
The media portrayal of mental illness is so often someone rocking back and forth in a padded cell. It is Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But I keep learning that the truth is quite different. Someone with mental health issues looks just like you or me, and Mental Health Mates reminds you of that. To be able to talk openly about the stuff in your head and realise you are not weird is the most liberating experience – it allows you to see that you are simply suffering from an illness like any other. That is incredibly empowering. It gives you strength when you think you have none.
And what I have discovered is that people with mental illness are incredibly strong – they are stronger than they know. Kat, Denean, Polly, Fiona, Maxine, Anna, Tim, Mark, Sam, Katie, Miranda . . . my new-found mental health mates are some of the most inspiring, incredible people I have ever met and when I look at them I know that anything is possible. And if I take one thing away from this experience, it is this: mental illness lies to you. It lies to you and lies to you and lies to you. It tells you that you are a freak, that you are worthless, that nobody understands you or what you are going through in your head. It is wrong. You are not a freak. You are worth more than gold.
But most of all, you are not alone.