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Interview: Anna Williamson

Interview: Anna Williamson

Working as a children’s television presenter, Anna Williamson appeared to be a happy and energised TV star. But after experiencing anxiety attacks which she describes as feeling like “an elastic band snapping” she is now fighting to de-stigmatise mental health. 

Not only is Williamson a children’s TV presenter, but she has also  appeared on a wide range of shows such as: This Morning, Big Brother, ITV’s Daybreak, Milkshake, GMTV, Disney and Nickelodeon. She also presents many red carpet events such as the Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards in LA. She is also an entertainment columnist at Digital Spy.

Since her own troubles with mental health, Williamson significantly turned her time to raising awareness, which has even lead the TV star to become a health therapist herself. She decided to train as a counsellor after her struggle came to light and qualified in an Open University course in 2009. “It initially started because I had some fantastic counseling to help me with anxiety and panic disorder,” she says.

From undergoing neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a form of communication therapy herself, she decided to become a NLP practitioner and life-coach, and qualified around two years ago.

“NLP was extremely helpful for me and I believe it is a very effective and life changing form of therapy. It’s a fantastic tool for learning about yourself.”

In terms of the “clients” she has seen and helped by using NLP she has helped with a range of needs. “Over the years anything from severe phobias, low self-esteem, confidence, anxiety disorders, depression, business goals, relationship issues. NLP can be applied to everything and it really has fabulous results.”

By working professionally to improve people’s mental health, she continues to develop skills and knowledge in the area. “You never stop learning, and I think that is what is really special about it,” says the mental health campaigner.

But looking back her career first began when Williamson joined the girl band Blush at just 17 years of age. She says this was by “pure coincidence” when the record company executive she was babysitting for offered her a chance to audition in the girl band.

After 18 busy months in the band Williamson decided to take her career down a different path. “It was nothing scandalous, it just wasn’t going in the right direction.”

She then wanted to take on children’s television, an experience she enjoyed while in the band. “As a result of being in a girl band, certainly back 15 years ago, you did a lot of TV appearances. I was going on a lot of kids’ television [shows] and really enjoyed it,” she says.

Therefore, when leaving the band she followed up on contacts she had from the shows.

“I hounded and hounded a particular producer at a channel at the time called Carlton Kids and it was a very small niche channel, it launched the careers of Naomi Wilkinson and Angellica Bell” she explains.

The particular producer eventually offered Williamson a shot at TV presenting but warned, “’if you mess up, that’s it’, but here I am 17 years later and I didn’t mess up”.

Being on television has been a huge part of Williamson’s life from then on. Although, the TV presnter eplains that people still say to her “it must be so nerve-wrecking going on television”. But she says she couldn’t feel anymore alive when working on-screen. “I absolutely love it. It’s instant, creative and full of energy. I just find it a really inspiring and empowering environment to be in… it is such a fantastic medium and I am so lucky to have been given the opportunity to do that.”

Williamson has always enjoyed her job, however things took a different turn in 2006 when she suffered from anxiety attacks while presenting a children’s show named Toonattik.

“I was coping with an awful lot, with a very toxic relationship, which was a huge part of it, as well as having quite a lot of demands at work. Even though I loved my job, it was me, I wasn’t handling myself and what I was doing,” she says.

Adding: “So it was a lot of emotional stress and trying to be smiley and happy but actually being miserable. Something gave way.”

After around six months of feeling “really horrible, the feeling of dread,” she couldn’t hide her struggle, and Williamson had a panic attack.

“For me it was a big, cold, drop sensation in my stomach, which would sort of act like a grip over my whole body.”

When suffering the attack Williamson says she “just wanted to run away. I didn’t know where I wanted to go I just wanted to go somewhere”. She describes it as: “Just like a rabbit in the headlights and this overwhelming fear of loneliness” that made her feel as though she was “losing her mind”. 

Since this occurred at work, the TV presenter couldn’t keep her mental health under wraps any longer. “I had no choice anymore, I was at work in a crying heap and it was clear something was very wrong with me.”

Once this had become a visible problem, Williamson took the step towards the help she needed and now speaks openly about her experience. This, she says, was a turning point for her that was like unlocking a door. Although she was apprehensive at the initial moment when deciding to go public with her problems, she soon realised it was what she wanted to do.

“One-in-four of us suffer from a mental health problem and if it isn’t going to be you it is going to be someone you know. So if anyone wants to judge, well then go for it because more fool them.” Additionally, she emphasises that she feels “really empowered by speaking opening about it and I am very happy to take any questions to educate people”.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) states that “in 2013-14 over 1.7 million adults accessed NHS services for severe or enduring mental health problems,” which highlights that mental health issues are experienced by many.

Therefore her ambition is to now help people suffering from these issues, and when it comes to mental health she sees possitive change now and in the future.

She explains that although there are still negative stories about mental health in the media “where they sensationalise isolated cases” there is still some positive media being fed through to the public.

 “I think we have come some way from 10 years ago, where people didn’t seem to talk about things or ‘air their dirty laundry’ so to speak – which is ludicrous.”

However, “we have an awfully long way to go. I think people in general are frightened of it, they are frightened of not understanding it or being labelled weak or a liability, which is completely wrong.” Using social media and creating online videos to promote mental health is now a big part of her life. By doing this she feels she can hopefully fulfill a gap for those suffering in silence.

“With all of these waiting lists people have nowadays to actually get help, I am trying to bridge that gap by offering my support and my expertise; from someone who has suffered anxiety disorder and also someone who is a practitioner.” 

Mind – a mental health charity – states on their website that data found by the HSCIC shows that anxiety alone affects 4.7 in 100 people and that “every year, one-in-four of us will experience a mental health problem. But hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling”.

As social media is accessed widely by young people this may be particularly helpful for those experiencing mental health issues. Williamson explains that when she first spoke out publically about her mental health struggles she received a huge response from children.

“I was doing a lot of children’s presenting and it became very apparent to me that there were a lot of kids reaching out to me as a result of watching me on the television that wanted help.”

Stigma may be particluary prevalent in young children as the campaign Time to Change says: “One-in-10 young people will experience a mental health problem and, sadly, 90% of those young people will experience stigma and discrimination.”

Williamson sees mental health as something that can affect anyone and everyone so we shouldn’t shy away from it, instead we should talk openly about problems.

“If you are physically ill you see a doctor, so why should it be any different for your mental health. I think there is a huge hurdle still to cross in terms of the stigmas for mental health.”

Therefore her personal aim is to “help empower other people and help bring comfort to others”. One way she is doing this is by helping others understand more, she says: “For me it is really important to help other people identify what is going on in their lives, prevention is absolutely key.”

By reflecting on her own health she is able to understand this, because she was always a people pleaser, which she says led to her mental health worsening.

“I was a yes person – I would go to four parties a night just because I didn’t want to offend someone but I would then burn myself out. For me, tiredness is my trigger, when I’m tired that’s when my panic attacks start.”

Alongside becoming an NLP practitioner, life coach and counsellor, the TV presenter joined Mind as an ambassador. Working for Mind is “a perfect collaboration” because the charity is “completely in line with all of my values and I cannot do enough for Mind to promote mental health awareness”.

Mind now has many strategies in place to help those with mental health problems such as an ‘infoline’ that offers callers confidential advice, a legal advice service to provide mental health information in relation to the law, 140 local Minds (services run locally to support people with mental health issues) that offer specialised care and support and much more.

Additionally, Mind continues to campaign for mental health awareness and states: “We won’t give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets support and respect.”

Williamson continues to work on television. At present she is about to begin presenting part of the new celebrity big brother series. Alongside this her focus and ambition still remains with mental health campaigning.

She says: “Now and again our brains and our emotions are going to take a bit of a knock and if they do they are going to need a bit of TLC to get them back up and running again.”

But the main message she wants those out there suffering from mental health issues to hear is: “Be brave and know that you are not alone. There are people out there that can help and taking that first step can make all the difference.”  

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One-in-four people suffer from a mental health issue and TV presenter Anna Williamson was no different, after experiencing anxiety and panic attacks she is now happy to be working as the “poster girl” for mental health