B(L)ackstage Stories: Introducing Lia

Welcome to the B(l)ackstage Stories blog series, my name is Renée Landell and for Black History Month I asked a few Black students and alumni to tell me their story.

This series aims to showcase amazing and talented Black Royal Holloway students and alumni in the hope of inspiring the next generation of Black students. Over the next few days I will be sharing their stories of ‘becoming’, overcoming and succeeding.

*Trigger warning: This content includes mention of suicide*

Lia’s Story

(Student, Management with Digital Innovation)

“Writing is a very out of my comfort zone, but for Black History Month I wanted to push myself and do something different. When Renée asked me to write this blog post, she said, ‘tell your story’ and honestly, I didn’t think I had a story to tell. What’s happened in my life that is significant enough for people to read? The thing about Renée is she automatically puts you at ease. She genuinely cares about your story, no matter how insignificant you may think it is. After exchanging a few voice notes with her, I felt confident enough to write this short piece. Bear with me, I’m not the best writer but here is my story of battling with mental health in a black household. 

As a child I was quiet, shy and reserved. I was bullied throughout my primary education which made, what I now recognise as anxiety, even worse. My sister and I were, and are still, extremely close – we’re 16 months apart. Mum was still at university when we were young but soon started working at the local nursery so she could be around for us more. Dad, a barrister, worked a lot but still made time to take us swimming every Saturday. I can’t complain about my life. I have a great family, but sometimes the anxieties from your childhood come out later in life. My two youngest sisters came along when I was doing my GCSEs and A Levels. Although I was very excited at the time, it was also a high-pressure time when I needed my mum’s support – her attention was elsewhere of course as it is when there’s a newborn baby. I moved schools for sixth form, and being in mixed education after being at an all girls school for over five years was a bit of a shock to the system! Lower sixth was great. I got into a relationship which went on to last over four years, I made some of my best friends and I enjoyed my chosen subjects. However, the school I was at was extremely high pressured. Anything lower than an A was ‘not good enough’. The next step was university and the words ‘Oxbridge’ and ‘Russell Group’ were mentioned on a daily basis. By upper sixth, the pressure of school had got to me. I’d applied to do Business Management at Durham. My family were so proud, which of course added to the pressure. But along with the pressure came anxiety and a depressive state.

I’d always had an open relationship with my parents, but mental health was never really something we discussed. My childhood anxiety was always met with anger so even if I wasn’t feeling quite right, I wouldn’t say for fear of being shouted at. There is a huge stigma surrounding mental health amongst black people, and my parents are no exception. When my mental health took a turn for the worst I didn’t know who to talk to. I was surrounded by family and friends but I’d never felt so alone. I wanted to talk to my parents about how I was feeling so badly but I was worried about the response I would get. My boyfriend at the time helped me to find some support in and outside of school, and became a huge support for me. I started counselling at school and my parents didn’t understand why. They didn’t understand why I was sad when they had given me everything I could ever need. A safe home, a good education. And I was ‘ungrateful’ for being unhappy? I felt as though I needed to hide how I was feeling around my family. I started self-harming daily. I started having daily panic attacks. My mood continued to deteriorate and along with that came suicidal thoughts. When I tried to take my life in January 2016, I was shouted at. It was a cry for help and the people I loved the most didn’t understand. They didn’t know how to help me and I had absolutely no idea how to help myself. 

The months that followed my suicide attempt were extremely difficult, however alongside dealing with depression and anxiety, I was trying to help my family understand. My CAMHS worker who I saw once a week adopted a more practical approach, focusing on changing my thought processes. On the other hand, counselling at school twice a week allowed me to explore the reasons behind my mental health issues. Throughout the process I tried to talk to my family about how I was feeling and the actions they could take to help me. I struggled to do basic things such as getting out of bed in the morning – I didn’t think I had anything to get up for. I was told to have hobby or find a new skill, so as soon as I turned 17, I started learning to drive. I completely threw myself into it and I always looked forward to going out to practise with my Dad. I took this time to talk to him about how I was feeling and try to make him understand that I wasn’t ungrateful. In fact, I was, and always will be, extremely grateful for everything my family have done for me. I simply wanted them to understand. Understand that it’s okay to not be happy all the time. That it’s absolutely okay to have anxiety or to feel anxious from time to time. But that there are ways to support those around you who are going through a difficult time.

As I said at the start of this post, writing is not something I do often. I find it hard to express myself on paper. As a Black African, my family have certain beliefs (which I disagree with) that go back generations surrounding mental health. But if you, like me, find yourself struggling with mental health and your family don’t fully understand – there is so much help out there! There are always people you can talk to, be it a friend, partner, extended family member, or charity (such as Off the Record or Samaritans). You never have to feel alone. And if you do want to help your loved ones understand, charities such as Mind have leaflets online which help explain mental health in a very straightforward, easy to understand way. Talk to someone and reach out to those around you. You never know what someone is going through.”