This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year's theme is loneliness.

Here, Steven Woodward, bid coordinator and graphic designer in our Construction business, shares his personal experience, what helped him and why he feels it's important to encourage others to speak up on their own mental health needs.

“In March 2021, the UK was in the midst of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. I was struggling. I was anxious, depressed and finding it hard to do even the things that once brought me joy, and I couldn't sleep.

Like many people during the pandemic, I found social isolation hard to deal with. I'm a sociable person and hadn't appreciated the impact of even the smallest of interactions until they were taken away.

A few months before I had lost my niece to cancer, and the year before my uncle had ended his life. These traumatic events, along with other bereavements, left me feeling like life was cruel and unforgiving. 

I didn't think I was depressed, but it's something that creeps up on you and before you know it, you're stuck in an all-consuming cycle of second guessing yourself, and wondering if you'll find joy in anything again.

The pandemic brought this to the forefront with nowhere to hide from the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing. 

My nervous system became hypersensitive and I was experiencing crippling panic attacks that would render me incapable of doing anything. I couldn't eat because my stomach was in knots, and I couldn't sleep because my mind was telling me it wasn't safe. 

I knew I needed help.

I went to the doctor, who prescribed me anti-anxiety and depression medication. These types of medication can make you feel worse before you feel better. I was told it could take six weeks or more to kick in. It felt like an eternity.

I felt like I was getting worse. I was exhausted and weak from barely eating. I was worrying my family and husband, and at the same time I thought my husband deserved someone better and he would only be happy without me.

I thought about ending things I was so desperate for it all to stop.

That's anxiety and depression; it lies. I was so disconnected from how I really felt that I couldn't think straight. The doctor had also recommended Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or other therapy, I felt talking would help but there was a waiting list so I started to look for other options.

Kier had given me time off work to support what I was going through. One of my colleagues also recommended Kier's Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – and thank goodness for it! I contacted them – I knew it was confidential and I really just wanted to be honest about how I was feeling without judgement or worry. Within three days I had my first video call with a lovely therapist.

That first session she reassured me I would get better, I started to believe her. Over the next few weeks, we talked about my thoughts and she helped me to step back and process them. It was slow going and, certainly while I was adjusting to my medication, hard work.

I learnt a lot about myself, about the mind, and how important it is to allow yourself to feel and process important life events. 

One of the biggest things I struggled with was sleep my medication affects your sleep, which seems counter-productive. I couldn't take over the counter medication, but my doctor prescribed sleeping tablets, which helped to break the cycle of not sleeping, feeling tired and anxious the next day and then not sleeping again because I was anxious.

My husband was amazing. It must have been scary to see me decline so quickly and I think it's another aspect of mental health that we just don't talk about.

As time passed and I returned to work, I slowly started to feel more like myself. I was able to cope with small tasks. It was very important to manage my stress and not bite off more than I could chew. My whole team were very supportive and understanding which helped tremendously.

At times, I did feel guilty, because I'm so used to tackling lots of work and getting it all done quickly. I had to be strict with myself and learn to say no. It sounds simple but saying no was hard for me. I don't like to let people down, but I had to be realistic about what I could and couldn't achieve. I had good and bad days, but I found it helpful to be upfront with the people I worked with. I think it's so important to not bottle things up and I think being open, setting expectations and boundaries also helped my colleagues too.

One of the main things I took away from my therapy was that my emotions were not the sum of me. If I had a bad day, it was important to think tomorrow is another day and more often than not I felt better the next day.

I think the biggest help initially was forming a support bubble with my parents to help me feel less isolated. They also helped support my husband. As restrictions eased I was able to engage more with friends and family, which helped to alleviate anxiety and stress, and brought a better sense of connection with them. I joined my gym and now, I try and get out at least once a day, whether it's to walk our dog or just to get some fresh air.

There is no quick fix, and you have to look at the bigger picture, but little by little you can make changes which dramatically change your life for the better. I hope that my story can help people going through a similar experience. Remember there is always light in the darkest of places, and getting the help you need is nothing to be ashamed of – it really can make all the difference.”