I was 12 years old, and my mum had just died from cancer. It was horrific to watch that happen to someone. My dad had an alcohol problem that mum had been managing all these years – suddenly he had a good reason to drink, and no one to stop him any more. He hit the bottle hard.
I went from being quite a high achieving student to being in the bottom quarter for English. But among all this, there was my English teacher, Miss Ward, who was so supportive. She wasn’t trained in mental health: she just saw someone who was distressed and unhappy, but who also had potential. She changed my world.
She listened to me and engaged with me. She had me talking in front of the English class, and was always chasing me to write something for the school magazine. She’d always find the good in the stuff I wrote.
I started the #FindMissWard campaign after going to a class reunion. Nobody knew what had happened to her. I’d just written a book about my journey on foot around the edge of the UK to highlight the stigmas surrounding mental health – and I thought it would be fantastic if she came to the launch. I think about 1.3 million people saw the tweet asking for help finding her, and tens of thousands of people retweeted and engaged with it.
The lovely thing was that so many people came out and said they had a “Miss Ward” too. One person on Twitter sent a message about their own Miss Ward and about five tweets later this woman said, “Here I am!”. They were reunited almost instantly – it was astonishing. I’m certain there’ll be lots of people who have never got round to looking for the teacher who made a lasting impact on their lives, but maybe wish they had.
When I think back, it took a long while for the personal difficulties after my mum died to really hit home. I fell to bits for a long time. I left school with almost no qualifications, but I had my O-level English and a few others. I ended up training to become a social worker because not many people had been there for me – and I wanted to be there for other people.
Later, in 2007, when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I became homeless after leaving my job. The experiences I had during that time made me feel it was important to challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health. By walking around the edge of the UK, I wanted to highlight how people with mental health problems feel on the edge of society. I was really pleased when I finally produced the book.
I’m not sure I would have had belief in my writing without Miss Ward. I think a lot of my other teachers at school were just a bit busy and didn’t see what was going on. It’s challenging to look after more than 30 pupils at a time, but somehow I came away from her classes feeling special.
We’re going to be meeting up in a couple of weeks. I just want to touch base and say thank you. I feel very lucky to have had her in my life.
Chris Young is founder of the Walk a Mile in My Shoes campaign, challenging stigma around mental health, and author of Walk a Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon.
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