My journey with mental ill-health, from Student to Director of Digital

Nicky Dunderdale

By Nicky Dunderdale

17th May 2019

It all started at school

My school years were an incredibly difficult time for me. Like so many students, I lacked the resilience to handle the academic pressure placed on me throughout my GCSE and A-Level years. I also struggled socially with my peers, which left me fairly isolated and unable to talk with others about how I was feeling. I piled pressure on my own shoulders to do well, which I did, at GCSE, but as I started my A-Levels the cracks appeared. Mid-way through my A-Levels I took time-off due to anxiety and depression – I was broken. I moved to a different school where I finished my A-Levels, just; I failed Maths and barely passed Biology and Chemistry.

I felt like a complete and utter failure. There was no way I was going to get to university to study Veterinary Science now, what on earth would I do?

Many students I speak to live in fear of that same feeling of failure and some, sadly, have already experienced it themselves. Young, talented individuals are pushing themselves too hard and too fast; burning themselves out before they have even had a chance to realise their potential.

This is why I believe it is so important that people like me share their own stories. I left school without the grades I wanted, I lost the future career I coveted and I was unwell. But that experience in my life has not defined me, I did not allow my story to end there and it is important that others know there is always another path waiting for you to take…

Who am I?

I left school, announcing to my parents that there was no way I was ever going to University! I went to work in a bar with a close friend; I wanted time to find out who I was and what I wanted to be. To my parent’s credit, they supported me, gently guiding and allowing me to find my place in life again.

My ambition never left me and over the next two years I worked in a number of roles within Financial Services, building an idea of the career I wanted. But, I quickly established I needed a degree to secure my all-important first interview.

I was offered a place to read Management Studies and Sociology at St. Mary’s University College. Whilst there, I became better at controlling the pressure I placed on myself, although I still experienced the instability of someone with a history of Mental Ill-Health. I re-discovered my academic mojo and gained a 1st Class honours in 2004.

I am fully aware that some parents hate it when I speak to their children! I am not shy in sharing that I believe that their children should have the right to choose the journey that is right for them. University shouldn’t be about getting a piece of paper and a cheesy photo looking like a Harry Potter character. Students should be encouraged to go to university to study something they are passionate about; building the best foundation for succeeding in their life. It’s what I did, and it really worked…

Time to head into the world of work

During the first 6 years of my career, I regularly took time-off due to Mental Ill-Health. I had fallen into the same trap, putting pressure on myself to perform and progress up the career ladder as fast as I could. My ambition was making me push myself too hard and I simply wasn’t being kind to myself.

It was so difficult calling in sick with a Mental Ill-Health related issue; fearful of the disappointment, I would often claim I had flu or IBS. And then there was the first day back, I would be utterly terrified, fearing people finding out what was really wrong.

Of course, they never would actually have been disappointed, that bit was just in my head!

We’ve all been there, reporting a stomach bug or cold rather than being honest. Looking back at my situation, I wish I had been more open and allowed my employers to support me better through the struggles I had, rather than hiding behind a variety of excuses. I think they would have done all they could to help, if I had given them the chance.

The moment it changed

In 2010 I moved my career out of London, joining the team at Punter Southall Health & Protection (PSHP), as Product Manager for a new proof of concept platform. The technology we built (Elysium) worked, so we set-up Psyon to take it to the next level and today I am lucky enough to lead this business alongside Anna Spender.

My life changed! The environment and culture within the business gave a new perspective to my career. I gradually built the resilience to deal with work pressures and was able to confidently work my way up in the business. Whilst my role of Director of Digital makes me responsible for an ever-expanding team, ambitious financial targets and business strategy, I now feel able to deal with the challenges that regularly come my way.

At Psyon, we talk to clients about the need to address Environmental and Cultural issues in order to positively impact the wellbeing of their staff. In testament to how this truly works, in nearly a decade, I have had less than 20 days off and none of those have related to Mental Ill-Health. If I ever start feeling those first stages of anxiety I am able to share this with my colleagues, safe in the knowledge that in doing so I have their support to help me through it.

My 3 top tips

Always be kind to yourself | The status of your Mental Health does not define you | Never be afraid to be honest and ask for help