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I’m Emma Nolan and I am a Software Engineer Apprentice at Thales UK. I’m doing a Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship, studying Digital and Technology Solutions at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Emma Nolan

This blog is going to be a very open story on my mental health journey and experiences. I want to write this and put this out there to open up the conversation on mental health. From sharing my experience in my own life, other people have opened up to me about their journeys as they have recognised they are not alone. If you are struggling, I promise you, you are not alone. And I also want to open up the eyes and start conversation with those who aren’t struggling. To help you empathise with your teams and colleagues and to make you think about how you could help those around you.

But I do have to begin this by saying that if you are struggling and you think reading this may trigger you, please do not continue. Don’t put yourself through something that could negatively affect you. This is just my journey. It is not a solution, it is not a step-by-step to recovery – it is simply a conversation starter and a way to raise awareness.

I have recognised my struggle with mental health issues from my early teens. At that age, it’s overwhelming and it’s easy to be influenced by social media and people around you. It took me a couple of years to open up to my family and eventually reach out to doctors and to CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health services). At 15 I was put on a course of Beta-Blockers while I waited for an appointment with CAMHS, and when I eventually had my first appointment with them I was diagnosed with anxiety but then instantly signed off. A severe lack of funding in this area means they have to really prioritise, and I wasn’t a severe enough case. I was told I could apply for therapy if I wanted, but at 16, I just wasn’t ready.

As I left school and moved on to college, I left a lot of things that troubled me in school behind me. I made new friends and had a bit more confidence in myself. The struggles were still present, but they were manageable.

Starting an apprenticeship at 18 though was definitely nerve-wrecking. I had to learn to be confident within the workplace and I had to learn to manage a full time job alongside a degree. Again, for the first couple of years at least, my issues were present but, for the most part, manageable.

And then the world went into lockdown.

I didn’t recognise it in myself at the time but my anxiety and depression peaked from my fear of COVID. The world paused and we didn’t know when lockdown was going to end. Having daily figures on the number of people dying; knowing my family members were vulnerable and feeling as though I had no control of that. These are not normal things for us to experience and it became very hard for a lot of us to handle. I didn’t even have the mental strength to join my parents on walks, because of my anxiety.

I was furloughed within the peak of lockdown, but I still had university assignments due. I remember opening my university laptop one day and just bursting out crying. I think that’s when I realised I wasn’t doing well mentally.

On my apprenticeship we have ELT’s (Early Liaison Tutors), who overlook how we’re doing within work and university, and who check-up on our wellbeing as well as other areas. During a review meeting, I brought up to her that I wasn’t doing so great. She gave me the advice you seem to hear all too often – things like stay hydrated and go for a walk. She also suggested looking at the university wellbeing services. I laughed off these suggestions at the time. I was fine, I could manage.

I just want to note here that while things like staying hydrated, eating healthy and exercising are recommended practise for good wellbeing in people without mental illnesses, they simply help combat a bad day and prevent extremes. I was anxious to the point I couldn’t go for walks. Depressed to the point where exercise was unimaginable. Drinking water wasn’t going to help. Please just be careful what you recommend to people and what materials you point people to.

Not too long after my review with my ELT, my furlough ended. Due to the nature of my work, I was back working in the office. I thought I was getting better and that it had just been the lack of routine affecting my mental health. However, I quickly started recognising behaviours in myself that were out of the ordinary. I was beginning to get really insecure in myself and in my relationship. I couldn’t at all motivate myself within work or university. I was scared of my work performance and about the next year of university.

On recognising these things I felt it was time to get some support.  Around September 2020, I applied for university counselling.

The counselling waiting list was a couple of months so I had my first session with my counsellor in December. In my teen years, I was gaslit by people close to me and led to believe my struggles were made up. Having a counsellor changed this for me. She validated my feelings and recommended I talk to my doctor about getting back on medication. I started using Beta-Blockers again.

Around this time I also opened up to my manager about my situation as I wasn’t sure if I needed to report being on medication at work – this may be daunting for some people, but I definitely think having people within the workplace that you can trust will really help. I actually didn’t need to tell them, but I’m glad I did as he recommended me doing a health assessment through work. I was ready to take on any help possible, so agreed to the assessment. On hearing I was already in counselling and being medicated, the assessor ruled that I was doing everything possible.

I suppose things were on the mend and getting better.

Then at the start of 2021 I took a couple of hits with different life events. I ended up calling Samaritans for the first time in my life. The operator distracted me and helped me to calm down in a bad episode. When you are feeling alone, they will be there. 116 123

These events really worsened my depression. I made the decision to call my doctors and started taking anti-depressants. Anti-depressants tend to get worse before they get better, and I was told to wait 3 weeks for them to kick in. This, on top of everything else, led me to take time off work for the mental health for the first time. I really felt I needed the time off to be able to process what was happening and to just look after myself.

Sick leave exists for a reason. Being mentally ill is just as important as being physically ill, so please don’t be ashamed of taking time off to recover and to look after yourself. On the other side of things, please don’t shame anyone for feeling they need the time off.

When the anti-depressants began to kick in, I was mentally doing a lot better. Unfortunately though, because of my time off, I was now limited on time to finish my university assignments. While I could have gotten extensions, I almost felt like a failure for feeling I needed them. Please don’t feel like that. This again relates to mental illness being just as important, and affecting you and your ability to work, just as much as a physical illness. Don’t be afraid to request more time.

I ended up working long days and using my free-time and weekends to complete assignments. As you can imagine, this really burnt me out.

At a similar time, my university counsellor said I was coming towards the end of my sessions. A lot of the time, counselling offered through education or workplaces will be 6 set sessions and they don’t go too deep into bigger problems – it’s kind of just to get you back to a better place. I wasn’t aware of this when I signed up, and while I’m sure this is great for some people, it wasn’t enough for me.

An issue of mine which she said she recognised is that I held back a lot. I was struggling to open up. I think I needed a therapist that used questions and prompts to help me to think and to get information out of me. That’s nothing against my university counsellor, but just a lesson that therapists are like relationships – you have to find the right fit.

NHS waiting lists for therapy are so long right now, years even. Thankfully, I had a friend who had just started seeing a therapist that he found through and he suggested I could do the same. The website lets you search for therapists in your area, and while this way costs money, I strongly believe you can’t put a price on health. I needed this.

Something important to consider is whether your company has any counselling schemes or benefits that may cover your costs. Looking into my work benefits, nothing was quite right. They offered another 6 sessions through a specific service but I felt I needed something more thorough, long-term and close to home for me. 

I’ve had a handful of sessions with my new therapist now and she provides me resources and prompts that help me to open up. Also, because she’s close to home, I get to see her in person. It just works for me.

I still very much feel I am at the start of my mental health journey. I’m learning to recognise my thought patterns and am learning different coping techniques in therapy. I’m still trying to find the right medication that works fully for my depression. I seem to have ups and downs now, but once again, things are becoming more manageable.

Wellbeing isn’t easy, it’s a lifestyle change. No one can fix you, meds can’t fix you alone. It’s a combination of a lot of factors.

I think it’s important to say too, that it’s a journey that only you can put yourself on when you’re ready. It took me years to be ready. On an important note though, I think we need to normalise wanting to be in therapy. We need to normalise discussing our mental health.

I hope sharing my story to an extent can help raise awareness and start a conversation.

You’d be surprised what people around you are going through. When you start the conversation, people will continue it, and it makes things easier for both of you.