At 15 years old, Lily Asch was admitted to a psychiatric ward back home in the United States. She had been dealing with severe clinical depression for a number of years, and it hit a breaking point.
Lily was brought in as an inpatient for suicidal thoughts and self-harming. After a week she was released, but had to undergo outpatient care for four years afterwards.
This included seeing a psychiatrist and being prescribed medication. The difficulty of this experience at such a young age was worsened by the fact that Lily was too ashamed to talk to her friends and family about what was going on.
“Going through this journey with my mental health at a young age affected my identity and sense of well-being. For a long time, I was very closed off because I thought my illness made me weak and damaged. I’d grown up believing that my mental health wasn’t something I could be honest about,” Lily recounts.
After completing high school in Connecticut in the U.S., Lily took two consecutive gap years as she was still struggling to cope. When she was 20, she decided to head to university. Wanting a fresh start, Lily chose to study in the UK.
“There was some very real fear and anxiety around whether I would be capable of just going and making a life for myself without any support. But that was also really exciting because I wanted to have control over who I was and how people perceived and knew me,” she says.
Lily began studying Ecology at the University of Edinburgh. However, this time wasn’t without challenges too. She struggled to manage the academic structure at university and found the pressure to be too intense. Continually trying to fit into a system that wasn’t working for her made her feel like a failure.
“I kept thinking that I wasn’t doing it right. And the pressure of course work, deadlines and the narrative that this would all decide my future really got to me. With hindsight, I’ve come to realise that’s not always the case.”
At the same time, Lily struggled to understand the differences between mental health services in the United States and the UK. To access support from her university, like a counsellor and extra time for coursework, she would have had to register with the disability service. But the language implicit in that didn’t sit well with her.
“Having to register with the disability service really confused me and wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing.”
Lily was also confronted with the fact that to receive free clinical treatment on the National Health Service (NHS), she would potentially face long wait times for appointments. She didn’t think any inconsistency would be beneficial and was fortunately able to seek support from a private counsellor, which made the process a bit easier.
Lily also started exploring non-clinical ways to help her manage her depression. One thing that unexpectedly helped was her involvement in TEDx University of Edinburgh in 2015. In fact, this experience ended up changing her life.
TEDx talks are run by local speakers presenting to local audiences on topics that matter to them. At first Lily planned to speak about the benefit of social enterprises because of her involvement with FreshSight, a student-run social enterprise in Edinburgh. However, she quickly realised her real strength lay in her lived experience of mental ill-health.
It became as good an opportunity as ever to finally open up about her journey. Her 13 minute talk completely transformed her ability to be honest with others and gave her the inspiration for what she would go on to do as a career.
“I finally took that first leap by deciding to talk about mental health. And as much as I thought people would say ‘creepy go away,’ it actually led to them giving me their own stories in return, Lily says.
“I noticed that many people want to speak about mental health, but don’t always feel like they have a safe space to do so.”
She decided to drop out of university before her final year as it didn’t feel like the right path for her. Her experience with TEDx inspired her to start her own social enterprise instead, which she aptly named Real Talk. She also gained a Counselling Skills Certificate from Edinburgh College so that she would have more of a grounding in helping others.
The aim of Real Talk is to help dispel stigma and offer an addition or alternative to the clinical model of mental healing. It also gives people an opportunity to better understand what they’ve been through and better articulate their experiences to others. Lily hopes this will inspire those experiencing mental ill-health to be more open and communicative about their challenges. And Real Talk creates a supportive space for people to learn how.
“It can be empowering when you start to talk about your mental health and realise that the world doesn’t crumble.”
“Finding community and realising that maybe you’re not as isolated or alone as you thought you were is a really powerful process.” Lily says.
Through Real Talk, Lily brings people together to share their experiences of mental ill-health. The process involves two workshops and a final storytelling evening. After all the stories are shared, a discussion between audience members and performers takes place followed by an informal Q&A session.
To date, Lily has run 14 events in Edinburgh and Glasgow that have seen 50 participants share their stories with more than 600 audience members. She hopes to grow even more in the future and spoke about eventually licensing her event model.
This would be done by creating a system of guidelines enabling people to run Real Talks in other places without her needing to be present, similar to the TEDx model. Before this happens though, she says they’ve got to work out how to make the business more financially viable.
Although there still is, and always will be, ups and downs for the business and Lily’s health, she’s been able to manage even the worst of days by helping others. She believes it’s only by having open and honest conversations about our mental health that we will begin to tackle the stigma around it.
“Having been there yourself, you want to be able to support others because it’s not something you’d wish on anyone. By sharing your story you’re pushing away self-stigma, claiming what you’ve been through, and then better understanding it.”