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  • Writer's pictureTom Robinson

Warning signs and triggers for mental illness: my latest charity talk with Stepney Bank Stables

I had some amazing feedback from a talk I did last Thursday for an equestrian charity called Stepney Bank Stables which I thought I would mention today.

The charity, who are based up in Newcastle, contacted me after reading the recent Horse & Hound article, and asked me if I would do a mental health talk to some of their students.

Stepney Bank Stable’s mission is to enhance lives through working with horses and has a particular focus on developing self-esteem, resilience, confidence and teamwork in children and young adults. This is exactly the kind of project that I’m interested in helping so I was thrilled to be asked to give a talk and delighted to share a bit of my story with them.

I spoke to a group of children and teenagers, specifically on the subject of warning signs and how to access support and help for mental illness. I think educating people about the signs of mental illness is hugely important because it can be so confusing and unsettling when it strikes.

In my first depression I really had no insight into what was going on and I beat myself up for feeling so low and lacklustre. This meant that I fell out with myself which just added to the anguish, confusion and dark thoughts, so educating people of the symptoms is in fact essential to saving lives.

Warning signs of mental illness

I’m going to discuss some of the warning signs that I mentioned in the talk last week. There are always going to be some symptoms that are specific to each individual case but there are also some that are more general and widely applicable to mental illness on the whole.

Some of these are:

  • Sleep problems

Sleep is the first thing to go awry with nearly all mental illnesses. When a depressive episode is coming on, I usually find myself needing more and more sleep until I start to find it impossible to get out of bed in the morning. When a manic episode is on the way I find that my need for sleep decreases over the space of a few days until I am not sleeping at all.

Sleep is the foundation of everything when it comes to mental health, and it is essential to stick to a routine and try to get a solid block of hours each night. The amount needed for each individual is going to be slightly different but anything less than six hours really isn’t enough and anything more than eight hours is bordering on too much.

I disregard my sleep patterns from the last twenty years because they’ve been so deranged and disrupted but my ‘normal’ before the illness was about 8 hours and my current (now I'm a bit older) is about 7.

If you are susceptible to mental illness then you must be acutely aware of your sleeping patterns and prioritise it as the number one focus for staying well.

  • Low or high mood

Mood fluctuations are perfectly normal but when they go beyond the ‘normal’ range or they start to affect your daily life then that can be a big warning sign that an episode of mental illness is on the way.

Although low mood isn’t depression, it can be the early warning sign of a depressive episode so it is important to become the ‘expert of myself’ in mood identification and interpretation. This is especially important if you are bipolar because the upswings need monitoring too.

I think it’s much harder to identify the beginning of a hypomania or mania than a depression because you feel so good. It gets easier to recognise as you become more acquainted with your illness but it’s also important to listen to what those around you are noticing too. If they say they think you’re running a bit ‘high’ don’t dismiss it, thank them for their concern and then try to understand why they might think that.

Self-analysis plays a vital part in monitoring and maintaining mental stability so always be acutely aware of any changes and try to stick to a routine as much as is possible.

  • Anxiety

Anxiety can come on its own and be highly disruptive to one’s life, but it very often accompanies other mental illnesses too. It is another big warning sign that things are not right.

Having anxiety in certain situations is normal – it’s all to do with the ‘fight or flight’ response that historically kept us safe from danger. However, when you are experiencing anxiety and you can’t attribute it to a dangerous or worrying situation then that is where it becomes a problem.

I found that if I pushed myself to continue with things that my anxiety went through the roof and I had to learn when to stop and sacrifice everything in order to get better.

Unfortunately, depression is so utterly debilitating that you are constantly having to force yourself to perform even the simplest of tasks. When you do this, a conflict presents in the brain because the depression is saying ‘you can’t do this’ and the rational side of me is saying ‘for God’s sake just GET OUT OF BED’ and in rushes the anxiety like a force 10 tsunami.

Again, it is important to be the ‘expert of myself’ and if I’m having these excruciating feelings then -and this is admittedly very hard to do - maybe I need to stop, admit that I cannot push through this and give myself time to recover. It’s important to do this before it gets to crisis point, so that you are giving yourself the best chance of survival and recovery.

There are far too many other mental illness warning signs, trigger points and symptoms than I have time to discuss in one blog post but these could include problems with concentration, irrational thinking and behaviours, ‘skewed’ thinking, heightened emotion, racing thoughts, heightened response to danger, and uncontrollable anger. I have added a video to the homepage which discusses some of these.

Stepney Bank Stables discussion

There were lots of questions from the students about mental health and illness and how I survived and recovered. Some of them were horsey related and it was nice to be able to talk about other things besides my distressing journey through mental illness!

I ended up staying on the zoom call after it was over to chat more extensively with two of the staff members. They have said that they would be really delighted to support me in the future with any fundraising that I may do and were so brilliantly positive and encouraging.

I really enjoyed talking about equestrian related topics and I think that will become an area of focus in the future. I did think that I would find it difficult to talk about horses and their positive effect on mental health when they weren’t enough to help me when I was ill (nothing was).

I managed to explain this by making the distinction between coping strategies for mental health (well-being) and coping strategies for mental illness (which are entirely different), and I think that helped to explain why it was that I didn’t even attempt to put my foot in the stirrup when I was ‘dying to stay alive’.

If you would like to know more about the amazing work and opportunities that Stepney Bank Stables offer, then you can find more information on their website which you can find here.

If you would like to know more about warning signs of mental illness, then I have added a video entitled ’10 Common Warning Signs of Mental Illness’ here and to the homepage.

Thanks for reading,

Speak to you soon,


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