Having real conversations keeps your head above water.
Saira Mcintosh has a huge passion for mental health. The Auckland-based jewellery designer and founder of Arias Design Co. donates 20% of all profits made from her polymer clay earrings to support the Mental Health Foundation, through her very own Lend An Ear initiative.
Saira’s passion is due in part to growing up alongside family members with mental health challenges, but it also stems from her own lived experience of mental distress. Last year, amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saira experienced a huge loss - the death of her brother Sami to addiction. Separated from her family in the UK, his death hit Saira hard, and she soon found herself facing major mental health challenges.
“I was just here alone without my family. So I didn't have that support network that I would have had in the UK. I suffered a very big mental breakdown and became very unwell. I deal with generalized anxiety, depression and chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from everything.”
During the peak of her mental distress, Saira found that the main thing she could do to calm her down was to reach out to those around her.
“One of the things that really helped me with that was talking to people a lot. If I wasn't able to talk to the people around me while I was going through that I do not think I would be here right now… You are drowning, and just being open and talking about it and having real conversations keeps your head above water.”
During this period, Saira also discovered a love for creating - specifically in the crafting of unique, artisan earrings. “I kind of stumbled across the earrings - making earrings out of polymer clay. And that has been such a huge factor in my kind of ongoing recovery, for so many reasons.”
“Creativity is a great thing, but also the opportunities it does give you to just get out there and talk to people. Since starting the earrings, I’ve had so many people come and talk to me about people they've lost. I've had so many conversations with people about their stories and their mental health, and it just all feeds into this great thing of looking after each other and social connection.”
However, Saira hasn’t always been comfortable having these conversations with others.
“It's a learned skill. I didn't really start talking to even my friends about it until after I had the first round of counseling. When you're younger and people don't really understand it, it's very much looked at as attention-seeking.”
Now, Saira says she is in a much better place, and feels capable enough to have honest discussions with friends, family, and even at her workplace.
“I'm doing a lot better now. It's been a journey, but I'm finally getting to a place now where I'm feeling a little bit more capable of doing things.”
“Even at work I'm really open with my mental health.. I've learned that that's just the best way to be about it. So everyone knows my situation. People know what I'm struggling with.“
So how does Saira open the conversation about her mental health, especially in places where it can feel awkward or scary to bring it up?
“I will just say, Hey, just so you know, I am feeling really anxious today. I am really not doing so well on the anxiety front. I'm feeling overwhelmed. And then we can just start to talk about what's making me feel overwhelmed.”
“It pays to remember that the biggest, the easiest place to find support is the people around you. People want to help if they know. And you'll be surprised at how many people around you have also struggled.”
For those that are currently experiencing mental health challenges, Saira’s story is one of hope - that by reaching out to those around you, you can find a way to get through.
“Talk to the people you trust. Firstly, always do that. Just bouncing off what's going on in your own head can provide such a sense of relief. Just talk to the people around you. And if you are feeling really down, [see] a doctor.”
“We're all social beings. We need to feel validated. We need to feel like we have some worth and we need to feel like we have some purpose. Having those conversations could give you that feeling, even if it's just for five minutes - it can lift your whole day.”