A safe space where no one judges

When Amanda O’Connell suffered a terrible period of depression, during which she self-harmed and felt suicidal, she was unable to explain to those closest to her how she felt.

It was as she recovered, and she talked about her experience, that family, friends and colleagues would ask why she had not told them.

And those that did know she was ill in turn had felt helpless about how they could have supported her.

With a responsible job as examinations officer at St Andrews University, she returned to work determined to find out more about mental health.

She completed a mental health first aid course, which opened her eyes to the lack of basic knowledge people have about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

“Everyone knows about first aid courses that train people to deal with physical injuries yet we think of mental illness in terms of professionals,” she said.

The realisation that ‘ordinary’ people could be taught skills that could make a huge difference prompted her to completely change her career path.

Two years ago she set up her own business offering mental health first aid courses.

The other move she made was to set up a support group in St Andrews for people with depression and anxiety, which meets at 6.45pm on the first Monday of every month in the university chaplaincy in St Mary’s Place, opposite the Student Union.

“It’s a place where people feel safe to talk with others who know what it feels like,” Amanda explained. “Or they can come and not talk at all and feel safe that there is no judgement being made about that either. They just need to turn up.

“We have people who come for a short time and others who still attend after they’ve recovered, which can be incredibly inspirational for someone who is at their lowest.”

Amanda has now set up a second support group in Dundee - both are affiliated to national charity Action on Depression.

Her courses are usually held for public bodies and health care organisations but she said the biggest reward was seeing the impact on individuals.

“So many people come up to me afterwards to say their daughter or their brother or someone else in their family suffers from depression and now they had a way to approach it and talk about it,” said Amanda. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

See www.actionondepression.org or email stadasgroup@gmail.com.