We need to be the generation to normalise mental illness

by Youth Sport Trust Athlete Mentor, and Commonwealth & European badminton medallist, Jenny Wallwork

We need to be the generation to normalise mental illnessMy name is Jenny Wallwork. I’m a former professional badminton player and I’ve enjoyed competing at the highest level in my career, but it’s not been easy. I suffer with one of the biggest mental health issues that affects thousands of young people today – bulimia. 

As World Mental Health Day took place earlier this month, it seems appropriate to share my story with the hope of encouraging more people to feel confident to talk about theirs and get support.

I was always quite self-conscious, but it got worse towards the end of secondary school when I was 17. I was worried about what I looked like, I noticed other people’s bodies and how mine was changing. It’s a massive thing when you’re young.

It wasn’t until I was 21 until the bulimia really started to develop and the whole situation heightened when I got into professional sport. Being involved in performance sport meant a lot of pressure surrounding your body, being quick enough, strong enough and regular testing to make sure my body fat percentage was at a certain level.

Over the next few years, I struggled in silence. As a professional athlete, you want to give off the persona that you’re the strongest you can be mentally and physically and I didn’t want to give anything away. Mental health is not something that is easy to explain or understand and I thought no one could help me. What started as a habit and a way of losing weight soon became an addiction.

When my story came out, it was surprising for everyone that knew me. That’s what so interesting about mental health; the majority of people suffering go unnoticed. We don’t have a sign on our face or badge, it’s a complex thing.

Since becoming an Athlete Mentor for the Youth Sport Trust, I’ve visited lots of schools using my struggles with mental health as a way of inspiring young people to talk about their issues and help them realise they are not on their own. Sport is a major part of my life and I know for a fact that being active and enjoying sport significantly improves my mental health. That’s the message I’m trying to convey to the young people I meet – there’s an outlet for you to express yourself and be free from your thoughts.  

I set up the Jenny Wallwork Foundation exactly for this reason – to support people suffering and their families. It’s about showing young people that it’s ok to talk about mental health and it’s ok for people to know that you are suffering. Telling people and reaching out for help can only be a positive thing.

I’m so happy that through my work with the Youth Sport Trust and the Foundation, young people are opening up to me about their illnesses. We need to be the generation that normalises mental illness because if we don’t, nothing will change. And it really needs to change. The more people talk about it, the earlier they will get support and the easier it will be for them to overcome. The less we talk about mental health, the more people are going to suffer and feel like they are being pushed into a corner. 

More information on becoming a Youth Sport Trust Athlete Mentor and how schools can get involved can be found here. The Youth Sport Trust initiatives that support young people’s health and wellbeing can be found here.

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