Staffordshire University student fronts awareness campaign for mental health

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Demi-Leigh Freeman was just 17 when she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

The 20-year-old Staffordshire student was dealing with a difficult family and school life when she first began experiencing mental health problems aged just 12.

Her nan passed away and the relationship with her mother quickly became volatile.

The attempted murder of her oldest brother followed just six months later.

The former High Arcle School pupil, from Dudley, began suffering heart palpitations and feeling low before sheltering herself from everyone around her.

“I was bullied at school, I didn’t have many friends and I got called a loner a lot,” she says.

“I felt like I had no one to talk to, so I bottled it all up.

“I always saw the school nurse because I could talk to her easily, and that’s when she first mentioned anxiety.

“I never thought depression either, and I never mentioned it to anyone.”

It wasn’t until Demi-Leigh started college and saw a psychiatrist did she finally find a diagnosis.

As she was learning to deal with this, she received another blow – her mother became increasingly ill after suffering from heart failure.

“I nearly lost her,” she says.

“She was also still grieving for my nan and we were at our most distant, which is why I think she got so ill.

“I think a bit of guilt is there, that’s why I didn’t tell her about my problems and she never told me hers.

“I didn’t reach out for help and I didn’t let her know what was bothering me.”

In a desperate last attempt, Demi-Leigh turned to her school for support but they struggled to understand, and put it down to her being “just a teenager”.

But despite this, she remained determined.

By 18, she realised the tablets she was medicated on were not effective anymore and she turned to counselling in and outside of college to better herself.

As Demi-Leigh began university, she described it as a “bit of a struggle” as she found herself in her bedroom and not talking to anyone.

It wasn’t until a friend suggested she should reach out to a charity called Fixers did she feel she began to defeat her demons.

Demi-Leigh, 11, 12 months before her diagnosis.

It’s a charity where young people of all backgrounds are using their pasts with eating disorders and cyber bullying to drugs and mental health to fix the future for others.

Through Fixers, Dem-Leigh became an administrator on the Facebook page where the cause behind mental health was reaching a larger audience than ever before.

She decided to start a campaign poster that aims to raise awareness of mental health problems and spark an open dialogue between young people.

“I wanted something really thought provoking, I thought of ‘Are you okay, but are you really okay?’

“Anyone can say they’re okay, just to shut you up, when they really don’t mean it, because it’s difficult.”

Thousands had the opportunity to view her campaign posters when they were hung up around her school and Dudley.

Demi-Leigh’s poster soon reached an audience bigger than she could have ever imagined when she found herself on ITV News to millions across the UK to spread the message about her campaign on February 2.

She described it as “quite a good feeling” when she realised the impact and feedback she was having from young people just like her.

Demi-Leigh has since beaten the worse of her mental health problems.

But she still believes there should be more support services available for young people in the position she was once in.

She says schools need more intervention with pupils who are suffering, particularly in the early stages.

“It is a lot of the time put down to attention-seeking, but if it is attention-seeking there’s almost automatically an issue there for someone to do that.

“People say things because they want to be heard, they want help.”

Caroline Scol, services manager for the Younger Mind charity in North Staffordshire, said: “Life nowadays is particularly challenging for children, young people and families.

“There should be more support for young people in schools, universities and workplaces.

“But unfortunately the funding isn’t available to provide the level of support actually required.

“This is why it is so important young people are made more aware and encouraged to be more proactive around their emotional health and mental well-being.

“We work with various presenting conditions which range from low self-esteem to self-harming behaviour to suicidal thoughts.

“We also offer 1:1 counselling sessions which are usually face to face or sometimes by telephone, and counsellors work with different modalities and techniques to facilitate therapeutic change.

“It is very important to access support as soon as you are able.

“Go and speak with someone you trust. Find out what help is in your area. Get support. Don’t bottle things up. Talking to someone can make a big difference.”

That is just what Demi-Leigh did.

“Speaking up is the thing you can do it.

“I wouldn’t be as I am now if I didn’t speak up.

“I probably wouldn’t even be at university, I probably wouldn’t have the connections I do with people to understand and listen.

“It does take time, it’s not an overnight fix, it did take me a year or two to get better. You just have to be patient.”

Demi-Leigh is in her second year of studying Digital Film and Post-Production Technology and hopes to go on to produce documentaries and travel after university.

She is a member of the global support group Personality Disorders Awareness Network (PDAN) where she helps other young people overcome their battles.

She’s set to begin voluntary work as a teaching assistant and to meet with MPs to discuss her campaign, including posters she intends to put up in Stoke-on-Trent.

Demi-Leigh receives counselling from the university and says she has her mental health more “under control” than ever before.

“There is still a lot of discrimination towards those suffering with their mental health – I experienced it myself.

“Some people thought because I was young I didn’t have any ‘real’ problems.

“People my age are often worried what their friends will think too – but hopefully encouraging people to talk openly about their experiences will help to reduce that stigma.”

Demi-Leigh says her confidence has grown and she is no longer scared of anything.

“I feel normal,” she adds.

“I never thought I would feel normal. I can be myself and I’m not ashamed.”

For more information and support contact the Mind charity on 01782 262100.

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