My mental health journey began at a young age. As a child, I experienced a number of health issues including a heart condition, problems with my eyesight and asthma. I wore milk-bottle glasses and was eternally shy, which seemed to make me an easy target for bullies. As a result, you could say I have always been aware of having mental health challenges in my life, but as I’ve got older, their presence has become more significant and now has the potential to affect my work on a daily basis.
When I was at school my dream was to work for the ambulance service. I liked the idea of helping people and I was inspired by the paramedics I had come into contact with during my childhood. I was not a naturally academic child in the conventional sense and over time it became clear my grades were not what they needed to be to pursue my dream. My school sent me on a week-long course with the London Fire Brigade in the hope of opening my eyes to other opportunities that were out there.
My experience there was enlightening: from the LIFE project I completed, through to becoming a “young fire-fighter”. When I later went on to spend time volunteering and supporting the London Fire Brigade, I found this not only gave my confidence the boost it needed, but also encouraged me to let my creativity shine through.
I’ve always had an interest in technology and an IT apprenticeship showed me that there might be a way to combine my passion for helping others with my passion for the digital world; I could be an entrepreneur!
While away from home studying at university, sadly I was the victim of an attack which brought on my epilepsy; a condition that had previously not affected me. My confidence plummeted and I felt I had to move home, unable to cope with day-to-day tasks unsupported. Using the IT contacts I’d made, I began using Microsoft wearable technology with sensors that monitor health and fitness and it struck me that I should be trying to find a solution that could help monitor and detect seizure activity, relaying that data back to medical teams.
This was the beginning of my business idea and has provided the foundation for what we are now developing, as well as what will come next for those with complex health needs such as- but certainly not limited to- epilepsy.
One of the things that drives my vision is a mission to empower health communities - especially patients - to play a more active role in their own care and treatment.
Combining my love for technology and my desire to help others, I realised that ultimately, I want to set up a charity. After initial investigation and some advice from my contacts within Microsoft, it made sense to set up commercially as a business to begin with, with a view to defining the charity once the wind was in our sails. That is basically how War on Epilepsy was born.
An estimated 600,000 people in the UK – almost one in every 100 – are believed to suffer from epilepsy, with around 87 new diagnoses made every day. The condition costs the NHS around £2bn annually to treat and leads to three per cent of all Accident and Emergency visits and 1.3 million days in hospital each year.
But for many, if not most, the diagnosis of epilepsy is just the beginning. Epilepsy is much more than just seizures; it is a spectrum of disorders, which makes sufferers particularly prone to bouts of challenging mental health.
Living with epilepsy, I became unable to do so many of the things I had previously done independently. My life became unpredictable and highly stressed. I would set out to a meeting and wind up in an ambulance on the way there, never making it to my intended appointments. The prospect of an outing or change in my routine became – at times – terrifying and could easily convince me to abandon all hope of leaving the house.
I’m lucky in that I have an incredible support system in the shape of my Dad, who comes with me everywhere I need to go. But that in itself is not without its challenges; as an adult and an independent young man, it can be hard at times to have to schedule my entire diary around my Dad’s commitments! Ultimately, though, it is my Dad that keeps me going when I have days that I feel down, isolated and unable to carry on.
It is a fact that most of us will face mental health problems at some point in our lives. Epilepsy sufferers are even more likely to do so, to the extent that there is an established link between the condition and suicide. This is in part due to the fact that some of the brain areas responsible for some types of seizures are also involved in mood and behaviour, making sufferers practically pre-destined to experience low mood and the feeling of being unable to cope, in an already extremely challenging situation. I am no different in this respect: on the days that I am struggling to remain positive, it is my mental health that can have the most significant effect on my condition overall.
There is no benchmark for measuring mental health - everyone is affected differently. Some people are highly functioning and their condition manifests itself in good and bad days; but to abolish the stigma surrounding mental health, as a society we need to get better at talking openly and normalising the issue.
For me, the most important message is to really drive and ignite open, non-judgemental and ‘safe’ conversations around the topic that not only help tackle the stigma so often associated with mental health and other hidden different-abilities, but equally afford social opportunities for those who are all too often socially isolated.
My life has most certainly been a roller coaster at times both personally and professionally, but in all honesty, I would not trade the experiences I have had for anything.
Undeniably, it has taken me some time and encouragement to really turn what for many might be some real weaknesses into some incredible and forever motivating assets.
My top tips for managing mental health as a business leader:
- Talk to people – find someone you can open up with and share how you are feeling
- Experiment with different therapies – find one that works for you
- Don’t lose hope – bad days happen, but try to start the next day in a positive light
- Don’t be defined by your mental health – there is so much more to you than it
Sean Hamilton is CEO, Chief Health Evangelist & Co Founder at War on Epilepsy and a member of IoD Advance.
Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week (13th - 19th May 2019) and beyond, the IoD will be featuring stories from our members relating to mental health as part of the #alittlemoreconversation campaign. Track the campaign via the dedicated mental health hub and the IoD's social media channels.
Return to the IoD Mental Health hub