In the sixth edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series we spoke to Paola Bombo, a student at King’s College London. ‘Paz’ as she’s affectionately known to her friends, talked about her mental health issues, her coming out story and the positive impact rugby has had on her life.
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
At the moment I’m okay. I’ve had a stressful couple of days having to start my final year at university after being in an accident last week (I got hit off my bike and broke my arm).
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
In 2013 I really started to understand what mental health was and why it’s important. I went from cancelling on friends and staying in alone to quitting jobs and having to take a break from my studies. I then learnt that how I felt was not uncommon and I could get help returning back to my normal life.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
I have lived with anxiety and depression for the last 5 years but for most of this time I tried to suppress my own feelings. Close friends and family revealing their own mental health struggles really gave me the confidence to finally open up about my own.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
My anxiety prevents me from being the cheery and outspoken “Paz” that I am. This usually happens in new social settings where I don’t interact and engage with people as much. Sometimes people think I’m pissed off at something, which is why I’m not talking…I just feel very anxious! When I have bouts of depression, even the simplest of tasks seem like a huge challenge, like getting out of bed or eating.
You’ve been a member of the LGBT community for a long time. When did you come out and what was the impact that had on your life and your mental health?
I came out at the age of 17 but I still wasn’t very public about it for a while after that, only to very close friends. I felt like my anxiety had a role in me not being able to be completely open and accepting of myself.
Was it a relief, a moment of pride or something you felt you had to do in order to be yourself?
It was definitely a relief and took some weight off my shoulders and I gradually started to take pride in who I was.
In your experience, how has the LGBT community broached the topic of mental health? Is it an issue people are open about? What more needs to be done to help every gay, bi or trans person feel comfortable talking about their mental health?
It is definitely a topic that more and more people are talking about and I praise the organisations that focus on mental health in the LGBT community – it is always so much easier talking to somebody about your own issues when they are part of the same community.
I know how proud you are of your African heritage. How have you married that with your identity as a gay woman and how has that relationship developed to shape the person you are today?
There is a lot of marginalisation of LGBT members in the African community. At first, I felt that my identity as a lesbian woman was erased whenever I was amongst other Africans because social and/or religious views sometimes disregard the LGBT community. I am the person I am today through self-acceptance and embracing who I am as a queer black woman.
Rugby plays a big role in your life. How did you first start playing it and how has it helped your mental and physical health?
I first started playing at university. I signed up, went to the first training session and I’ve stuck with it ever since! I’m not sure why it took me so long to get back into playing competitive sports after leaving school but it’s improved my strength, fitness and mental health. It’s helped my stress relief massively.
What’s been the biggest benefit for you since you started playing rugby?
Definitely the confidence I get from being around such empowering girls and being able to do something that I enjoy apart from working or studying. I’ve made great friends and get to be part of such an amazing team.
You were made First Team Captain of Kings College London’s Women’s Rugby Team last year. What responsibilities did you have to take on and how do you help the younger players fit into the squad, recognise their playing responsibilities and generally feel more comfortable in university life?
We had a record number of sign-ups that year and it was great to see so many girls getting into rugby. It was my job to make sure everyone was always keen to play and turning up every week to training sessions. As a team we treat each other more like a family. The older girls made sure that the new ones were settling in well, could find time to balance studying and sport and just being there for anybody to talk to.
Have you told anyone close to you about your mental health issues like your friends or family and have you asked for support for them?
I mostly confided in one or two friends close to me but it was actually most difficult to tell my parents. I felt like I was letting them down in a way that I wasn’t the perfectly fine ‘okay’ daughter they’d want. Luckily, both were very supportive.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
I’m definitely a do-er, so I find keeping my mind occupied by staying active really helps. Also, taking time for relaxation by myself also helps a lot. I find myself listening to music in my room a lot to manage my anxiety.
If you could say, what do you think have been your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
I think my highest point was definitely when I started to open up to my friends about my experiences. It took me years and I was very proud of myself for doing so. My low moments would have been anytime before that when I was afraid to speak up and would hide my feelings.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
It definitely is and it’s all really positive to see more people are talking about it, which decreases the stigma around mental health. In addition, people are learning about how to look out for other people and for signs of any issues as well as realising that it is more common than they initially think. There has definitely been progress.
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone who has mental health issues can get the support they need?
We always need more ways to support those with mental health issues, it’s progressing but there is still a long way to go. The government needs to realise that MH is just like any other illness and needs to fund treatment and services effectively so people are getting the maximum support they can possibly get.
You can follow Paz on Twitter.
See more conversations like this in our ‘Just Checking In‘ section.