“When I was 14, I was in and out of hospital and my friends didn’t understand what I was going through. I was really struggling. A lot of the help out there is very clinical and medical, sometimes when you need to heal that’s not what you need. You need love, compassion and someone to be gentle with you. My first experience with CAMHS was when I was 14, after I experienced a traumatic event. They told me it would take six months to see me. Eventually I hit crisis point and I ended up in hospital. The services were very patronizing.
“More recently, I rang a crisis line and said that I was depressed and didn’t know what to do. They said: ‘what you can do, is have a nice shower,’ I said that I can’t do that and they said ‘why, what’s wrong with your fingers?’ – that’s what the mental health system in the UK is like.
“I have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and throughout my whole life, my diagnosis has been used to restrict my access to care. There can be a lot of judgement. I do think that maybe my life could have been very different if I hadn’t been diagnosed. It’s just awful – there is a hierarchy of diagnosis’ in the mental health system, which I only really realised after working as a student nurse and support worker in a psych ward for a few years. There is a lot of denying access to care based on diagnosis.
“When I was 17, I was invited to a group of young people who hear voices called Voice Collective, who offered me peer support training to help facilitate their group as I also hear voices myself. I then decided to make my own peer support group for young people with mental health issues, which is run by people who have also experienced distress and mental illness. I did this because I realised that there wasn’t a safe space for young people to talk to other people that actually understand how they feel.
“When I first started Evolve, there were no members. I thought ‘is it worth it?’. For the first year, only one person came. My attitude has always been that if I’m helping one person, as long as I can help that person, I’m making a difference. I like using my experiences to help other people feel less alone. I created Evolve seven years ago, because there wasn’t anything like that for me growing up, so I knew that this was something I wanted to do. I didn’t believe I could ever do it. But now, we have 20 people registered for the sessions.
“It’s been difficult at times with my own mental health struggling too. However, I have got a lot more confidence since starting Evolve, as I have been involved in mental health activism since I was 16. I’ve really wanted to use my experiences to give back. Especially during the lockdowns, I wanted to use my time to get to know what opportunities were out there for me to help.
“I’ve started working with Voice Collective as a development worker too. It’s a really exciting time for me at the moment, because there are lots of people speaking out about the realities of the mental health system in the UK. I’m involved in Gemma Collins’ documentary too. I have lots of work in the pipeline such as talks, but I’m mainly focusing on Evolve right now as that’s my priority.”
Gemma Collins: Self-Harm and Me is currently on Channel 4 and All 4, on demand. You can find out more about Evolve here